Do you have a lot going on right now? Knee-slap! Of course you do! Project A has only just kicked off, pending feedback on Project B from person X who should have contacted person Y about the overdue task that has to…STOP!
These words have been immortalized by emperor Augustus, first emperor of the Roman Empire, and serve as a useful mantra for each of us today: ‘Make haste, slowly.’ If these words inspired a man to build an empire, perhaps they can inspire us while we build our dreams.
Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Before we speed up, we first need to slow down
You might argue that we have moved on from chariots to fiber optic, and from the Colosseum to the Mars expedition. That slow & steady doesn’t pay off anymore — not in an age where your competition is the neighbor’s 12-year old son, who will probably launch the next billion-dollar startup. From his bedroom. By next Tuesday.
However, the human mind, body and psyche haven’t changed as much. Our brains still work similarly to the Emperor’s. It still pays off to follow his advice.
Step 1: Stop the panic-state
I’ve almost drowned. Twice. Both times in the ocean, and both times as a result of strong currents. My exuberance sent me past the lifeguard flags marking the “swim-here-or-drown”-area.
An okay swimmer and slow learner, nature taught me a valuable lesson then — one that applies as much to the ocean of to-do’s and deadlines, as it does to the Big Blue Sea:
Panic creates a cascade of physiological and mental processes that do exactly the opposite of what you need. Your body and brain start jerking around violently, each in its own direction. It becomes near impossible to stay above water — let alone breathe, swim and not die.
Herein lies the irony: when you’re at risk of going under, the panic-state your body goes into only moves you faster towards the feared outcome.
The first, and most important thing you should do in a panic situation is to focus your energy on calming down. You do this by directing all your attention to your breath, and slowing it down:
- In the ocean, you turn on your back, drift on top of the water, let the current take you and slow down your breathing.
- On dry land, when you’re desperately doggy-paddling through yesterday’s overdue tasks, you also turn on your back, close your eyes, allow the current of life to flow around you, and slow down your breathing.
To grow fully in this skill, I recommend you download a mindfulness meditation app, like Headspace.
Step 2: Re-orientate
Don’t skimp on step 1. Too many times, when the currents of life have taken us in too deep, we frantically try to re-orientate before even calming down.
I’ve had too many days where I uncontrollably start answering every e-mail, send a barricade of overdue texts and jump between tabs as if my mouse is on fire. At the end of the day, I may be able to cross off a long list, but have I made any true progress? It’s like doggy-paddling against the current: it only makes you feel like you’re doing something.
Only once the calm has settled in, which means you’re not all sweaty palms, high-speed heart rate and hot flushes, you are ready to re-orientate.
Here are two simple tools to help line up your tasks in the right order.
Tool 1: Prioritize by importance and urgency
The Eisenhower Matrix is an efficient tool to help prioritize tasks on your to-do list. In a nut-shell, this tool helps avoid awkward situations like choosing an outfit while your house is burning down.
Do this exercise now. Get pen and paper. You’ll feel a lot better when you’re done.
1. Draw the following diagram on a blank sheet of paper:
2. List all your tasks.
3. Rate your tasks in order of urgency and importance, then position them within the quadrants.
If that feels like solving an advanced math equation, here are some pointers:
Quadrant 1: Urgent-Important.
These are the “My hair is on fire!”-tasks. Your client is calling you from the coffee-shop about the meeting you never set. Your kid’s eye-ball fell out. You’ve pressed snooze once too often. You’ve received your eviction-notice. I’m sure you get the gist.
A word of advice: Notice the temptation to put EVERYTHING in this quadrant. Don’t. The goal is to grow your self-management to a point where this quadrant is empty; where your life is so well-managed, that you have room for crises; a life where arriving half-dressed or putting on make-up mid-traffic is a thing of the past.
Quadrant 2: Not Urgent — Important.
Think: investment plan, kids’ tuition fees, meeting that important new client for your business, signing up for that education program, updating the projects and testimonials on your website. These things are important. They aren’t really optional, but they usually get pushed to the bottom of the list too often.
A word of advice: Be careful now. If you don’t have “Save for child’s tuition fees.” in this list, you will end up with “Sell my body for tuition fees.” in Quadrant 1 a few years down the line. These tasks require long-term planning and they need to get done before they become urgent.
Quadrant 3: Urgent — Not Important.
This is the panic-energy I spoke about: that frantic clearing of the inbox, organizing your desk, having another on-the-spot meeting to discuss the same topic. This quadrant is the one that sinks ships and drowns self-starters. It’s the one I like to call the panic-block: it feels urgent, but it isn’t, and it’s a good block to delegate to others.
A word of advice: Learn to say “No.“ If you don’t, this block will be empty at the beginning of the day, but you will spend most of your time doing things that belong here. These tasks: 1. Don’t serve your goals.
2. Don’t align with your values.
3. Keep you in the ‘busyness’-state.
4. Distract from what is important.
Quadrant 4: Not Urgent — Not Important.
Enter the era of Netflix, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the whirlpool of box-sets (thank you, G.O.T.!) They suck your life-force like a leech and keep you from a fulfilled future. They are the brain-parasites.
A word of advice: I’m not saying you should never spend a whole weekend under the covers, binge-watching until your eyes bleed. I’m only suggesting you choose the way you relax carefully: not as an escape, but as rejuvenation. If said activity only serves to numb you, rather choose a different one or get back to work. This means activities like gym, playing with your kids and date-night actually belong in Quadrant 2.
Tool 2: Prioritize by impact and effort
This is a little device I picked up from my involvement with start-up businesses. It’s called The Impact Effort Matrix.
You should fill this in right after completing your Eisenhower Matrix.
Step 1: Draw the following diagram on a blank sheet of paper:
Step 2: Go back to your list of all tasks.
Step 3: Take ONLY the tasks you put in Quadrant 2 and distribute them here.
You’ll notice that this matrix doesn’t work only within the quadrants, but across them. It takes a bit of thinking to decide which tasks are easier and which tasks will give you the highest returns.
Here are a more examples:
Quadrant 1: High Impact, Hard.
Building a Fortune-500 company. Writing a best-selling novel. Inventing the light-bulb. Starting a colony on Mars. Getting your child to adulthood. It may cost you blood, sweat, tears and cash, but it will be worth it in the end.
Quadrant 2: High Impact, Easy
A successful Tinder-date. Releasing your launch video. Doing what you do well, instead of trying something you’ve never done before.
The trick with this quadrant is that we don’t always know which of our tasks will have the best impact. This is the quadrant we wish our efforts were in. But they’re often not. If you do have tasks in this corner, you should put them at the very top of your list.
Quadrant 3: Low Impact, Hard
Handing out flyers about your new App to the old-age home. Selling anything door-to-door. Trying to change your husband’s mind.
These are almost worse than Eisenhower’s fourth quadrant, because they don’t even give any pleasure. I would probably just scratch them from my list altogether, or — if they simply must be done — delegate!
Quadrant 4: Low Impact, Easy
Getting your friends as clients in exchange for testimonials. New business cards. Sending your client’s monthly invoice — unless that invoice is enough to take you to the Bahamas — then this task obviously moves up to Quadrant 1.
These tasks aren’t necessarily going to change the face of the earth, but they won’t take too much time and energy. Most importantly: if you have a lot of these, the value also adds up.
How To Ride Your To Do List Like A Wave In 3 Steps
You don’t need to clear your to-do list to get control back of your life. All you need is to follow this simple process:
- Take deep breaths to calm yourself down and think clearly.
- Prioritize by importance and urgency first, then by impact and ease.
- Focus your energy on what needs to be done.
If you’re struggling with this process, get in touch with me, and let me guide you through the process. Before you know it, you will be out of the current and on top of the surf!
1. These are only tools.
You don’t have to use quadrants at all, but visualizing your life really helps. The quadrants help your brain ask necessary questions about anything: a task, project, idea, goal, business-plan or even a relationship.
- How important is this?
- How urgent is this? (Not how urgent does it feel).
- How hard is this?
- How much impact will this have?
2. Importance is relative.
This is why you need to do this exercise regularly. I suggest weekly. You may put “date with wife” higher on the importance list than “save money”. However, when you’re in debt, you might need to put “Get another client” above “Date with wife”.
3. Impact is not just about cash.
Just like importance, impact depends on your value-system. It can be measured across various aspects: passion, satisfaction, emotions, relationships, physical, health, financial, environmental, etc.
Life is not about ticking off tasks on a sheet, but a meaningful, fulfilled existence. For example: “Holiday in Asia” can be high-impact on the scale of personal fulfillment.
4. There is no wrong way to do it.
Very often, people get so caught up in whether they’re doing this right or wrong, they just leave it altogether. The tool is here to serve you, not the other way around. Use it any way you like. As long as you get to work through the 4 key-questions, you’ll easily reach your goals.