How to prioritize the old-fashioned way

How to prioritize the old-fashioned way

General and president Dwight Eisenhower had this saying: “What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.”

The saying became known as the Eisenhower Decision Principle, and through the years it has helped millions assess what they should focus on in life, and what they should let go by the wayside.

In his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, my mentor Stephen Covey developed a prioritization system based on the Eisenhower Principle. Covey’s model explores how busy professionals divide their time into four categories, and how we can be more effective when we shift things around. According to Covey, there are four types of tasks:

  • Category 1: Urgent and important tasks that allow you to keep your job (crises, deadlines, immediate manager requests).
  • Category 2: Non-urgent and important tasks that allow you to grow professionally and work toward a promotion or new role (relationship building, new skill development, training).
  • Category 3: Urgent and non-important tasks that allow you to keep your reputation as a team player (interruptions, certain e-mails and phone calls, certain meetings, certain administrative work for senior team members).
  • Category 4: Non-urgent and non-important tasks that will get you fired if you’re not careful (busywork, chatting it up with colleagues, social media).
Man ignoring woman

An urgent task is one that is highly visible and insists on action. An important task is relevant to your long-term career goals. If you’ve been spending your days rushing from fire to fire without eating or even breathing, you are probably spending 90 percent of your time in Categories 1 and 3, and you might have noticed lazy people who hang out far too often in Category 4.

The best kind of time management involves steering clear of Category 4 and shortening the time spent in Categories 1 and 3 to allow more time for the Category 2 tasks that should be your top priorities. It won’t just happen, though. As much as possible, you have to consider your schedule in advance and plan time to achieve Category 2 tasks that relate to your goals, leaving space for Category 1 and Category 3 tasks that come up suddenly and unexpectedly.

Here’s an example. An old colleague of mine, Jenny, had an interesting childhood and wanted to share her lessons with the world through motivational speaking. Currently earning her living as a PR firm staffer, Jenny prioritized chairing meetings and presenting to clients at least once a month. Although these Category 2 initiatives were outside her formal job responsibilities, Jenny made time for them in order to sharpen her public speaking skills. Once a month was about all she could manage due to lots of activity in Categories 1 and 3!

Color thumbtacks on calendar

Like Jenny did, you’ll need to review your schedule every day and reassess it if needed. Some flexibility will be required, especially if you are an admin or junior staffer who takes hourly direction from a manager.

Work environments are, by nature, very busy places. It’s easy to get caught up in the task of the moment, and next thing you know, an entire day has passed. But, if you want to experience maximum personal and professional growth as well as job satisfaction, Category 2 must always be top of mind!

What if you aren’t sure what category a task should be in? For instance, let’s say that a colleague asks you to help with a client report. You haven’t done anything like this before and think it might be good experience, but should you label it Category 2 and shuffle things around to make room for it? This particular colleague isn’t authorized to delegate work to you, and the task does not fit into your regular responsibilities.

The short answer is: when it doubt, ask. Tell your boss about the tasks that are competing for your time and ask for his or her help in prioritizing. Ask for guidance as to whether the client report represents a growth opportunity and/or is important to the business. If your manager decides that the report is not something you should focus on, get his or her help in communicating that to your colleague. Your efforts to protect your time should not make you look like the bad guy!


Do you have any tips for staying on task? Share your ideas in the comments!