Business person signing documents at desk in office

Bob is a business leader and a time-management fiend. He keeps such an exacting calendar, his activities are scheduled down to 15-minute increments. But no matter how well he manages his time, he still struggles to achieve his business goals.

Why is that?

Although his calendar was impressively organized, it was filled with activities that weren’t truly about driving the business forward. Such as launching new marketing campaigns or creating systems that help his team complete tasks more efficiently.

Like many of us, Bob erroneously equated being busy with being productive. The problem with that is, being busy doesn’t lead to success—being productive does.

To be productive, you must shift your mindset from time management to time value.

This means you don’t just fill your days. You fill them with the most important activities that will impact the business’s bottom line.

Time management isn’t the goal. Activity and self-management are the goals.
– Todd Herman, 90 Day Year

Why we focus on the wrong tasks

Maximum productivity occurs when you work on the right tasks at the right time. So you get the right (valuable) things done. And you do it with less stress. This may sound obvious, but many of us don’t have productive days because of two reasons: 1) We let interruptions distract us; 2) We don’t prioritize strategically.

Let’s look at interruptions…

What may surprise you is that nearly half of your interruptions are probably self-inflicted. That’s when you’re working on a report, then suddenly jump online to check out this weekend’s weather forecast or answer emails.

Other interruptions come from responding to other people’s requests. Like when someone walks up to your desk and wants to “pick your brain for a minute.” Or when your boss wants you to prepare a report for his meeting—that’s tomorrow.

No matter how brief it may be, that interruption becomes your new priority. But chances are, that new priority is not important to your goals. If you tallied how many times you’re interrupted each day (self-inflicted or from others), and you counted them for an entire week, the hours wasted on handling interruptions will probably surprise you.

Remember, productivity is not about managing your time. Productivity comes from managing your focus. That is, what you spend your time on.

This leads us to the second reason why we often focus on the wrong tasks: We don’t know how to prioritize strategically.

Here’s how to fix that. And when you do, you’ll also squelch interruptions like a pro…

The Priority Matrix

The Priority Matrix below helps you clearly see what you should be working on now. And what you should do next. It was created by Todd Herman, founder of the 90 Day Year. Herman is known for being the coach for high-achievers—from enterprise-level business leaders to Olympic athletes.

All his clients use the Priority Matrix. Because no matter how busy their days, the matrix keeps them on track by showing what they should be working on, what they should do next, what they should delegate, and what they should delete.

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Here’s how it works:

Infographic of Todd Hermans priority matrix showing four quadrants along an x and y axes, numbered in order of priority

  • Quadrant one: Quad 1 tasks are important and not urgent. This includes planning marketing campaigns, developing your sales team, and taking care of your health.
  • Quadrant two: Quad 2 tasks require immediate attention like deadline-driven projects, an urgent customer issue, or a family emergency.
  • Quadrant three: Quad 3 tasks may need your attention now, but they don’t help you achieve your goals. Some emails, phone calls, and meetings fall into Quad 3.
  • Quadrant four: Quad 4 tasks don’t help you achieve your goals. Like when you’re changing the colors of a chart or browsing the internet.

Using the matrix

Most of us start with Quad 2 activities—they’re urgent, so they must be the most important, right? Not so fast.

Always start with Quad 1 activities first. Why?

  1. Because if we don’t take care of things that are both important and not urgent, three things happen:
    They never get done
  2. They show up in Quad 2 as a problem, emergency, or deadline
  3. You spend most of your time working on other people’s priorities instead of your own

Of course Quad 2 items are urgent, so they must get done. Take care of them promptly or delegate them. But here’s the thing: When you remain dogged about completing Quad 1 tasks, you’ll have fewer tasks in Quad 2.

One more thing. High-achieving people rarely spend time on Quad 3 or four activities. They either delegate it, automate it, or just say “no.”

“The more important an item, the less likely it is urgent. And the more urgent an item, the less likely it is important.” – U.S. General and President Dwight Eisenhower

Now it’s your turn:

  1. Plot your upcoming weeks’ worth of daily activities on the matrix
  2. Delegate Quad 3 tasks as soon as you can. This frees you to focus on what will deliver the biggest wins.
  3. Throughout the week, keep track of what shows up in Quad 3 so you can to systematize, automate, or delegate them.

Todd Herman sums it up best: “Either you run the day, or the day runs you.” If you want days that are driven towards achieving your goals, then manage your focus. When you prioritize your tasks strategically, you don’t just spend your energy, you spend it on achieving valuable things.

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