I tend to work on a lot of different things at once. A year or two ago, my productivity wasn't the best because of that. Sometimes I lost track of what I had to do for which project: Small tasks outside of our official project management tool got lost from time to time, wrong prioritization made things difficult as well. I wanted to improve things.
Every so often, tasks have a fixed deadline (think: User stories within a Sprint, documents for pitches, etc.), sometimes they are blocking other people and sometimes the tasks are actually fun, but not important at all. I needed to find a way to keep track of what tasks I had to do until when.
One of our agile coaches then suggested a method to me, that was a little more sophisticated than the usual "To do/Doing/Done" kind of task boards: The Eisenhower Method. I adjusted it, though, to better fit my needs.
In this post, I'll tell you about my method to organize my tasks and how it helped me become more productive.
What's the Eisenhower Method anyways?
Dwight D. Eisenhower once said this:
"I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent."
According to Wikipedia, Eisenhower himself attributed this quote to an unnamed "former college president". The Eisenhower Method works with this quote: It categorizes problems by their importance and their urgency.
But what do "urgent" and "important" even mean?
Urgency and importance
The two indicators are kind-of connected. Something that's urgent is often also important and vice versa.
Something is urgent when it needs to be done now or latest at some given point in time. The closer the deadline, the more urgent a task becomes. If the deadline is not met, some harm/damage is done: An opportunity is missed, there's a financial loss or similar.
Importance on the other hand describes the impact: How much value is generated by the task? Does it help fulfilling a greater goal or is it chores?
A good example is a User Story in a Sprint: The sprint's timebox gives it urgency (the closer to the review meeting, the more urgent it becomes), but if it doesn't contribute to the sprint goal, it doesn't have much importance.
Preparing a workshop to present a fancy new tool might be important (learning and teaching, this new tool might make people more productive), but it's not as urgent, since you can reschedule the workshop any time you like.
The Eisenhower matrix
The categorization I told you about gives puts any task in one of four possible states:
- Important and urgent
- Important but not urgent
- Not important but urgent
- Not important and not urgent
For each of these states, there's an action to take, shown here in the classic "Eisenhower matrix":
I liked the idea, but felt the need to alter this principle a bit. Any task I can't delegate or delete can still be not important and/or not urgent, but would have to be done at some point, anyways.
The adjusted matrix
I use artificial deadlines instead of actions like "delegate" or "delete":
The day/week/month rhythm is simply a guideline. Generally, "within 1 day" could also mean "within the next 2 days". "Within 1 month" could also be 2 months or 3 weeks. I usually focus on tasks that need to be done "within 1 day" in my day to day job. That way, I make sure to always meet deadlines, the planning of tasks comes naturally: The matrix automatically tells me what to tackle first.
Whenever a new task comes up, I add it to the matrix by assessing its urgency and its importance. Tasks can be re-assessed as well: If the urgency of a task rises, its position on the matrix will change. If a task's deadline became obsolete, it will move downwards. I also add all meetings to the matrix, as they are, essentially, tasks with a given deadline.
Underneath the matrix, I put an extra table:
The left column, "to prioritize", is used to store tasks I don't know about yet. Tasks that might not even come up or have a deadline or impact that's unknown.
The right column, "Done this week", serves a simple purpose: A storage for all done tasks of the week. At the beginning of a work week, I remove all tasks from the last week and already get a confidence boost just by seeing again what I achieved the week before.
How I use it
I hanged it on a wall: I created a physical version on a flip chart sheet with some markers, some highlighters and a ruler. Ideally, it should placed on a wall you can see from the corner of your eye. This way you can always quickly glance over it to select your next task. No need to go through SCRUM boards or emails to find out what's next.
Every task that comes up I write on a sticky note and then place it on the matrix. I also add the current date to the sticky note to keep track how long a task has been on the matrix. This helps me to re-prioritize tasks every now and then. A stack of all done tasks of the last few months further serves as a work log. I usually take about 15-20 minutes each morning to update priorities and create new tasks from emails.
Writing down every single task and meeting and trying to give it a priority helped me a lot. The matrix gives a good overview on what I need to do when. It let's me estimate the expected time when I can complete a task and makes sure I meet the deadline. Having a time box each day to gather new tasks lets me focus on my open tasks for the rest of the day.
It's additional effort: Prioritizing every single task and meeting takes away a some time each day. Keeping it up to date also needs discipline. Also, the amount of sticky notes used increases a lot. I tend to reuse some (like, for weekly meetings), but most I can't because they're unique. There's reusable sticky notes, though.
The method helped me a lot to regain focus and pick up velocity in my day-to-day life. I personally like the act of physically moving a task when it's finished, it gives me some kind of satisfaction. And ultimately My own board is a single source of truth.
I'm working from home since around mid-March due to 2020. The first thing I did was grabbing a flip chart sheet and recreate the matrix for my office at home.
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