Three Popular Ways to Prioritize a Hectic Schedule

The purpose of prioritizing is not to see how many things you can accomplish in 24 hours. Prioritizing is about putting things in proper order of importance and accomplishing things that move you towards your goals. The great thing about prioritizing is that you get to decide what is most important in your life–no one else decides for you. Learning to prioritize means learning to put your life in perspective in order to be more effective, more productive, and more fulfilled. Without prioritizing, everyday can be extremely chaotic and daunting,  And as a result, you may end up getting nothing done because you are so overwhelmed.  There are many systems for prioritizing your work and your life.  In this article we will talk about three extremely popular systems, Stephen Covey’s, David Allen’s, and Brian Tracy’s.

Stephen Covey’s Method for Prioritizing

Stephen Covey’s enlightening bestseller, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, outlines ways to become even more effective at each task you need to accomplish. These 7 guidelines are sensible, practical ways to make your life easier and stress-free. The highly effective habits are based around the concepts of being proactive, knowing what you want, and being selective with what you choose to take on. Stephen Covey’s system for getting things done is based upon quadrants from most important and most urgent to least important and least urgent.  Covey’s most famous concept is his time management quadrant (or matrix).  The quadrant breaks tasks into four categories:

  1. Important and urgent (quadrant 1)
  2. Important and not urgent (quadrant 2)
  3. Not important but urgent (quadrant 3)
  4. Not important and not urgent (quadrant 4)

Here is the concept illustrated:


The goal is to prioritize so that the majority of your time is spent doing tasks that are important but not urgent (quadrant 2).  If you concentrate on quadrant 2, then the important tasks in your life will never become both important and urgent (quadrant 1).  Quadrant 1 should only be reserved for true emergencies.  However, when you fail to get important tasks done ahead of time, your important tasks them also become urgent tasks.  So when prioritizing, it is important to do important work well ahead of time so that they don’t become an emergent situation

When starting this method, you may have to start with quadrant 1 tasks first as you will have a lot of things that are both important and urgent (perhaps as a result of procrastination).  But as you get more accustomed to this method, the list of things in quadrant 1 should get smaller until they are almost nonexistent, save for true emergencies.  And as you keep going, dedicate your energy to working on tasks that are in quadrant 2, so important things get done well ahead of time so they don’t become urgentFor instance, if you have a test coming up next week, studying for the test is important but not urgent.  If you wait until the last day to study, then it becomes both important AND urgent.  Having less tasks in quadrant 1 means that you don’t have to always be in crisis mode and putting out fires.  This method ensures a much less chaotic and much more pleasurable (and manageable) life.

David Allen’s Method of Prioritizing

David Allen is another productivity guru that has been extremely popular as of late. His website offers plans for businesses and individuals to gain the right perspective in life and grab hold of the things they want, and the things they need to accomplish. His best-selling book Getting Things Done teaches a whole new system for organizing, prioritizing, and getting things done effectively. The system is based on getting everything out on paper (a brain dump) so the mind is freed up to concentrate on more creative tasks. In David Allen’s system, tasks are broken down into different projects, lists, and agendas.  The projects are viewed from a macro scale wherein the lists are viewed from a micro scale, of what needs to get done everyday so the project is a success. On each list, all information is stored about that specific “project” that needs to get done.  In David Allen’ system, the term “project” has wide usage.  It can be an actual work or school project, or it can be a goal of yours, such as losing 20 pounds.

In order to prioritize what needs to get done first, David Allen uses four criteria to decide what priorities to get done.  The four criteria are:

  1. Context (what can I do where I am?)
  2. Time (when do I have to do something else?)
  3. Energy (how fresh/wasted am I?)
  4. Priority (what has the highest payoff for me if I do it?)

In terms of payoffs, you will need to assess what is the most important goals in your life at any given time.  Is it to get a promotion at work?  To lose 20 pounds?  To make your business profitable?  The tasks that is related to your top goal should usually have priority over other conflicting tasks.

David Allen says that we should regularly review these four criteria on a greater scheme—from a macro level.  The key to David Allen’s system is to keep nothing locked in the mind; write everything down to free up memory and constantly review what needs to be done.

I have to admit, David Allen’s system bit requires a bit more planning, writing, and curating.  Even David Allen admits to his system’s complexity by saying “to simplify a complex event, you need a complex system.”  But there are you a couple of key advantages to David Allen’s complex brain dump system.  First, you will never have to remember anything (because everything is written down) so you can conserve your memory and brain power.  Second, constantly writing down everything allows you to constantly reinforce your goals and priorities because you are forced to reassess them every time you write something down.

This article only touches the tip of the iceberg in David Allen’s system.  To get a more thorough understanding of his system, read his book.  David Allen released a planner that is specifically designed for this method of prioritizing.  You can get it on Amazon.

Brian Tracy’s Method of Prioritizing

Mark Twain once said “eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” Brian Tracy further conceptualized the quote in his book Eat That Frog!: 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time.  Essentially, the concept of eating the frog first means doing what is least desired first so you can get the grunt work out of the way, and gain momentum for the rest of the day.  A day’s tasks is broken into four categories:

  1. Things you don’t want to do, and actually don’t need to do.
  2. Things you don’t want to do, but actually need to do.
  3. Things you want to do and actually need to do.
  4. Things you want to do, but actually don’t need to do.

According to Brian Tracy, the frog is the second category, the things you don’t want to do, but actually need to do.  They are called frogs because they are ugly and distasteful.  And it is the ugly and distasteful things that often go undone.  But it is these frogs are the tasks that need to be done the most.  And once you tackle the frog, the rest of the tasks should come very easily as you have the motivation and the momentum to tackle the things you actually don’t mind doing.  The habit of eating the frog first creates an internal reward that keeps you going as the day progresses.

Plan the Night Before

Now that we’ve talked about the three popular systems for prioritizing your life, we need to talk about the most important aspect of any system—planning.  As the old adage says, “failing to plan is planning to fail.”  A busy schedule is simply something you can’t “wing.”  That’s probably why you’re here reading this right?  Because you’ve tried winging it and things just aren’t working out.

In order to plan, you should set aside a 15-30 each day to plan your ahead.  It is best to do it the night before, right before going to sleep.  Planning the night before ensures that you already have a plan of action the moment you wake up.  Write down everything you need to do the next day and make sure to prioritize what needs to be done first and foremost.  Then as the day goes along, you can adjust your plan accordingly.

Whether you pick one system to use or create a hybrid system of all three, the most important thing is to stick to it if it fits you.  If it doesn’t fit your personality, find another one or create your own.  Be sure to review your priorities, goals, agenda, and tasks everyday.  Then take action.  Good luck!

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