If you’re anything like me you don’t have just a few things on your To-Do list. In fact you probably have more than one list; Personal and Business and they’re even broken down into various sub lists as well.

And if you’re anything like me, looking at that list you want to get on with it and get them all done and move forward.
But how do you prioritise? How do you decide which of the (probably dozens of) items are the ones that need to be done now and what order to do the rest? Which ones can wait?

Prior to becoming the President of the United States Dwight D Eisenhower served as Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces during the latter part of World War II. His job included overseeing the D-Day invasion of Nazi Occupied Europe.

He was faced with many new, tough decisions and actions that needed his focus every single day. To help him deal with this load and he developed a principal to help decide and prioritise those tasks and deal with the important ones first.

Steven Covey, the author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People used and popularised Eisenhower’s concept of decision making to use four quadrants to determine task priorities.

I call the slightly modified version that I use the 4D’s

Here’s how it works:

For every item on your To-Do list ask the following two questions;

  • Is it Urgent or not Urgent?
  • Is it Important or Not Important?

Once have the answers to those two questions match the answers against the top row and the first column of this matrix to determine the priority or the task.

Quadrant 1: Do It

If you determined the task was both Urgent and Important then it falls in this quadrant. You can count it as critical for your personal or career progress.

Tasks falling in this quadrant need attention to avoid negative consequences. You need to manage them to their completion as a priority!

An example of this type of task might be completing a time sensitive proposal which is important to the profitability of your business. If it’s personal it might be dealing with a medical condition that is affecting your life.

Quadrant 2: Defer It

The tasks that belong to Quadrant 2 are tasks that are important but not urgent.
They are the tasks that you will spend most of your time on in your life or your business as part of your long term game plan.

In this case we are deferring them; scheduling them for later or putting them into project or business plan with specific target dates and completion timelines.
In our personal life this might be putting together a plan for an overseas holiday

It is important to accept that what might be appropriate for this quadrant for you might get a totally different classification by someone else like your business or life partners.

Everyone has different goals and priorities!

While we are labelling this quadrant “Defer” this is not the same as procrastinate over their completion.
You should be setting a definite target for completing to these tasks as they are important to your personal or business life.

Just because they are being judged Not Urgent does not make them unimportant.
We often pay more attention to Urgent matters over the Non Urgent ones in the belief that Urgent should always take priority.

These tasks in this quadrant should all be part of the game plan.
They should stay constant as part of your long term strategy and as such will take precedence over the next quadrant

Quadrant 3: Delegate It

How many times have you put a lot of attention into an urgent task that in the wash up has had little effect on getting you closer to the goals that you have set?
Or someone persuades you that you have to attend to this task straight away, right now, urgently, when in actual fact it could very easily have waited until you had a spare moment?

This is a common mistake to be making when someone else asks you to take on a task that does not actually benefit you or your plans or get you closer to your goals.

It is important to learn not to take ownership of these tasks.

When you think that something is important and it’s not then it’s actually an outside distraction.
Checking your email when you aren’t expecting anything important, answering texts and voice calls as soon as you receive them even though they are not as important as the current task.

You can get someone else to take on these tasks for you.
Get someone else can check the email for any possible issues and then only bring them to your attention if they shift into quadrant 1.
Get someone else can monitor you phone the same way … or, alternatively you can turn it off and let the calls go to voicemail.
They’ll still be there when you turn it back on!

Delegate all those “urgent but not important” things that you can get someone or something else to handle while you get on with the main game.

Quadrant 4: Delete It

Tasks that fall into this quadrant are quite simply a waste of time!

If you pay attention and identify these and eliminate them you will claw back a significant portion of your day that you can then invest in your quadrant 2 tasks.

How much time do you spend reading marketing emails that are of no interest?
How much time browsing the web following links that are nothing to do with what you went there for in the first place?
What about watching television programs that you’ve seen before, reading nonsense posts on Facebook …. ?

This doesn’t mean that some of the things that wind up in Quadrant 4 shouldn’t be a part of your life.
Finding a balance between professional and personal life is important and having downtime in the mix helps keep that balance.
Having this downtime allows you to refresh and rebuild the energy that you need to keep up the pace to the top two quadrants.
The challenge here is not spending so much time in quadrant 4 that the tasks in quadrant 2 are getting neglected and falling behind schedule.

How to Implement the 4D’s

At first you might find it difficult to make a judgment call on where you are spending most of your time in this matrix.
It can be easy at first to fall into the trap of assuming the because the tasks are in quadrant 2 they can be taken care of later.
You then begin a procrastination cycle with quadrant 2 tasks and spend more time on quadrant three.

To get used to spending your time in the first two quadrants try a one or two week exercise.
Make out a complete, blank grid for every day.
In this grid block for each day fill in the tasks that you’ve completed for the day in the relevant quadrant along with the amount of time that you’ve spent on each task.
At the end of the block add up all the time spent in each quadrant across all the days and compare the quadrant totals.
If the top row totals are not significantly larger than the bottom row then you need to reconsider your priorities.
Spend some time to re-organise your days to accommodate the more important tasks.

Final thoughts

You cannot succeed in our careers, business endeavours or life if we are consistently missing deadlines or important engagements.
Letting important tasks slide while we pay too much attention to less significant issues is a real danger in our modern society.
We are constantly working across multiple projects and conflicting priorities and if we struggle to meet our commitments while leaving important tasks unattended then we are failing ourselves and our own future.

If we apply this simple 4D matrix to our planning of priorities and tasks then we are able to effectively move away from the chaos dictated by the pressure of the immediate and urgent and manage our available time to follow the path we’ve laid out towards our goals