Fail-proof way to boost your productivity with a prioritization matrix

Do you ever feel like you have to many items on your to do list?

Is your to do list overwhelming with too many nagging projects but you just don’t know where to start?

I have to admit, I feel this way more than I care to admit. But what I’ve found is that when I have a system it helps me to feel more in control. And using a prioritization matrix has been a great solution to feeling more in control.

Unfortunately, the only way I can actually whittle away at my to do list is to actually do the work. But this system allows me to see everything in one place and then see where I should start.

And a lot of times, just knowing where to start (and getting started), is half the battle.

What is a prioritization matrix?

I was first introduced to the idea of a prioritization matrix when I read Stephen Covey’s book “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” in college. 

These days, whenever I need to get off the hamster wheel and start taking control, I will sit down and start filling out a priority matrix. This helps me see what is really important and what isn’t.

Also called the Eisenhower matrix, the prioritization matrix is a visual way to see your to do list so you know where to focus your attention first.

Without this visual aid, I find that I respond to the squeaky wheels first. Which then means that I continually feel like I am just putting out fires – instead of working on my important tasks.

How do you create a prioritization matrix?

I like to take a full blank piece of printer paper and draw a giant box big enough to fill the whole page. Then I draw a vertical line and horizontal line to make four equal squares.

Along the top you write Urgent/not important and Urgent/Important. Then along the side you write Important/not urgent and not important/not urgent. Lastly you look back at your crazy long to do list and start putting each item somewhere in a box.

Really, it is up to you to decide the importance and urgency of each item. This is not something that two people will do identically, so don’t worry about getting it wrong. This is uniquely up to you.

What is the prioritization process?

When I am feeling super overwhelmed by my burgeoning to do list, I simply sit down with an good old pad of paper and pen. I just start dumping everything that is weighing down my brain and get it all out on paper.

At this point I am not worried about what I put down, what type of activity it is, when it is due or anything else. All I am doing is getting it all out on paper.It is so much easier to objectively look at my to do list when it is in black and white on paper. 

When all those items are jumbled up in my brain I just can’t seem to function. But when I take the time to sit down and get it all out on paper, it just seems to take the pressure off and relieves my brain from having to store it all.

So, what is my prioritization process? It can be broken down into 8 simple steps:

  1. brain dump on paper in no particular order
  2. draw my matrix on a separate sheet of paper
  3. start assigning each task from my brain dump to the correct box in the matrix according to each items importance and urgency
  4. keep filling it in until each and every item has a place
  5. look at the not urgent/not important quadrant and release all those items from your guilt, they don’t matter and don’t need to get done especially if you are short on time and/or energy
  6. look at the important but not urgent box, what can you delegate to someone else? Can you text your hubby to stop at the grocery store on his way home to pick up those few things? Cross it off your list once it is delegated
  7. look at the not important but urgent items, these are the things you keep reacting to but don’t move you forward in your goals. Did you get an email that you were supposed to bring the snacks to your son’s soccer practice tonight? Can you text another mom and ask to trade her practice nights? If you don’t ask but constantly try to do it all, then you will quickly reach burn out mode and won’t be able to get anything done. ask me how I know
  8. finally, look at your urgent and important items, these are the few items that will get you to your next promotion or impress that big client. Get those tasks done first and don’t look back at the other tasks, they can wait

Prioritize your to do list

Now you have it, a much easier to do list that you can quickly scan and choose your most important thing to do each morning.

When I am completely overwhelmed by life there are some days when I am lucky to get even just one thing done. I used to feel guilty about this, but then I read The One Thing by Gary Williams and now I embrace it.

So, each morning ask yourself: What is the one thing you can do today to make everything else easier or not necessary? Pick your own thing from your prioritization matrix and then make sure that even if nothing else gets done today, you are going to get that one thing done.

Eventually, with enough small wins built up over a few days, you will start to chip away at your to do list. Knowing where your priorities lie make everything else so much easier.

When you see that nagging item on your to do list but you realize it is not in line with your priorities, it is so much easier to just dump it or delegate it to somebody else. If it isn’t important and urgent to you, then you don’t need to spend any more time feeling guilty about not getting it done.

It’s all about getting the right things done

At the end of the day, time management isn’t about getting more things done, it is about getting the right things done.

By clearly seeing all your tasks categorized on a priority matrix, you can know just where to focus your energy to keep in line with your priorities. 

If you want more help with my system for performing a brain dump every week, check out my weekly review system here.