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How to Prioritize Your Todo List With A Sheet of Paper

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Whenever you start your day and you look at your to-do list, what kind of feeling do you get?

Do you look at your to-do list and feel like you’re fighting an uphill battle? Is it never ending? If you’re like me, you’d probably had days when you crossed three items from your to-do list and all of a sudden three new tasks are added in. At the end of the day, when you look at your to-do list, you feel defeated and you feel like you can never finish your to-do list. This usually happens to most of us because we often miss this one thing… prioritizing your to-do list. So if you do not want your to-do list to reach Mars, I suggest you do this one thing.

When you don’t know how to prioritize everything on your todo list, you’ll often feel:

  • Everything on your to-do list is important and urgent (which leads to the feeling of overwhelm)
  • That your to-do list always growing and that there’s no end in sight
  • Uncertainty because you don’t know if what you’re doing is a good use of your time

You don’t want to feel these negative emotions at the start of every day. One negative emotion before you start your day can spiral out of control and derail your whole day. Just think of a time when someone cut you off on the road or you received some bad news. How productive were you the rest of the day? I’m guessing…not very. You should not waste your entire day just because of one negative emotion or waste your entire weekend just to catch up on your to-do list. You should be able to get it done with the time you have.

This is something that I have experienced too especially when I have procrastinated the day before because I didn’t want to look at my never-ending to-do list. When I let the dread of “why did I procrastinate?!?” continue on to the next day, I almost always end up having a bad day–unproductive and with sub-par performance. That was before.

At Asian Efficiency we helped more than thirteen thousand people achieve their goals faster. As one of the most sought-after productivity training companies, we’ve helped thousands of men and women achieve their goals in record times. There’s one skill we’ve identified that every Asian Efficient person must know how to do: how to prioritize what you do every day.

That’s why we always tell people to get a solid morning ritual in place because you put yourself in control of your day. After you’ve gone through your morning ritual, you always want to have absolute clarity and confidence about what the rest of your day is going to look like. When you know how to prioritize your day, you get to conquer your days and you don’t have to work late nights or sacrifice your time with your family.

That’s where being able to prioritize is important, and what you’re going to learn today with a sheet of paper.

A Typical Todo List That Gives You A Feeling of Overwhelm

To Do List So Many Things

Let’s imagine for a moment that you work as a loan officer in a big corporation with thousands of employees. You help people get financing for their dream homes. You’ve been with the company for over 5 years now and you have a couple team members that report to you. You’re making good money but you want to get more out of life. Not only do you want to move up at the company, you also want to spend more time with your family and maybe even start a business on the side.

As you walk into your office, you grab a cup of matcha tea (what every AE aficionado should have of course) and you’re about to review what you’re going to do that day. This is what your todo list looks like (in no particular order):

  • Call client Marissa re: mortgage options
  • Re-arrange my schedule and work hours for Johnny’s soccer games
  • Weekly Company meeting on IT and Infrastructure
  • Watch NBA playoff game of LA Lakers vs Golden State Warriors
  • Show my new assistant Dawn how to research and book flights
  • Update social media of my company account
  • Upload photos of my recent vacation with the wife on Facebook
  • Research options for coaching on my productivity
  • Put a proposal together for client Joe
  • Catchup on show Designated Survivor

A typical todo list, right? It’s a mix of stuff you have to do at work but also a few actions you have to do at home. At this point, you might feel overwhelmed. Everything looks important and you’re not sure what to do now. Where should you start?

To be able to prioritize, you have to know what your goals are. When you have no goals, you cannot prioritize your todo list.

Let me repeat that one more time: to be able to prioritize, you have to know what your goals are.

In this example, I purposely didn’t tell you to illustrate the point that it’s impossible to prioritize your todo list.

So let’s just say you have a goal for yourself on a company level and for your personal life:

  1. Work goal: Sell 5 mortgages in quarter 3
  2. Personal goal: watch every soccer game of little Johnny every Saturday morning for Q4 and beyond

Now that you know what your goals are, can you see how it’s a little easier to prioritize?

Goals and Tasks

If a task is not related to any of your goals, it should be ranked at the bottom of your list. So let’s re-order everything based on what we know now:

  • Call client Marissa re: mortgage options
  • Put a proposal together for client Joe
  • Re-arrange my schedule and work hours for Johnny’s soccer games
  • Show my new assistant Dawn how to research and book flights
  • Weekly Company meeting on IT and Infrastructure
  • Research options for coaching on my productivity
  • Update social media of my company account
  • Watch NBA playoff game of LA Lakers vs Golden State Warriors
  • Upload photos of my recent vacation with the wife on Facebook
  • Catchup on show Designated Survivor

This is looking much better now, doesn’t it? You have a better sense now of what you should do, in what order. At this point, you’re already ahead of what most people know and do. But there’s one more problem. What’s the EXACT order you’re going to tackle your todo list?

What do you do first? What do you do second?

This is very important to maximize the value of your time. It would be a waste of time to work on something that’s maybe ranked fifth on your list as your frog for the day (your most important task). By the time you finish your fifth most important task, you might not have the time, energy and focus to work on what’s actually the most important task on your list. That’s when you’ll put it off, procrastinate on it, and move it to another day. What a waste!

The Problem with Doing Important Work Later in the Day

Another thing that will often happen is that mid-day you’ll get distracted by last-minute emergencies or fires you need to address that will derail your day. If you start your day working on a task that wasn’t important and you thought “oh I will get to my most important task later in the day”…I think you know where I’m going with this. You’re leaving it up to chance whether it’ll get done or not. Our days can be very unpredictable so it’s best to always work on your most important task first before anything else. That’s what we like to call Eating Your Frog (an idea we picked up from Brian Tracy) and it’s one of the first things we teach every new AE client.

Why? The order of what you do matters. There must be a sequence to your todo list. You cannot work on task #2 until task #1 is done. Once task #1 is done, only then are you allowed to move on to task #2 (not to task #5 or #6 – no matter how fun or easy they appear).

Ideally, you want to start with your frog – your most important task – first. Even if you get sidetracked at some point, you can go home knowing you’ve at least done the most important work you could do. The reason a lot of people feel stressed is that they don’t work on their tasks in order. They either leave their frogs till the last minute (yikes!) or they have to bring work home and finish it off then (not ideal either).

Sounds familiar?

I have to admit, after working with many clients and having it done myself, working on your tasks in order is not easy. It requires discipline. The good news is that everyone can develop this type of discipline.

So how do you rank your todo list? This is where the Q2 Matrix comes in.

The Q2 Matrix To Order Your Tasks and Activities

If you’ve read the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, this quadrant might look familiar:

It used to be called the Covey Quadrant, aptly named after Stephen Covey who wrote the book. Some people call it the Eisenhower Box or Matrix popularized by president Eisenhower.

Nowadays, it’s referred to as the Q2 Matrix by the Franklin Covey company and what’s what we will call it. But I’m going to give you the AE-spin on it that I think is more practical and revelant to you – especially for prioritizing your todo list.

Here’s how it works: every item on your todo list fits in one of the quadrants (Q1, Q2, Q3, Q4).

Q1 – The Quadrant of Necessity. These tasks are important and urgent. These must be done to do your work and live your life. They don’t necessarily move you forward that much towards your goals, but not doing them would set you back. Typical tasks are deadline driven, time-sensitive and part of day-to-day work and living.

Q2 – The Quadrant of Extraordinary Productivity. Your tasks are important but not urgent. This is where you choose what you want to work on because it gives you the highest return on your time and the tasks bring you closer to your goals. Typical tasks here are relaxation, planning, executing on tasks in alignment with your goals, building relationships, and thinking time.

Q3 – The Quadrant of Distraction. The tasks that fall in this quadrant are typically not important but feel urgent. I have emphasized the words “feel urgent” because this is where most people confuse what belongs in Q1 but actually do not. Typical tasks would be anything not in alignment with your goals but you somehow feel that they need to be done (false Quadrant 1 tasks). For example, attending meetings that aren’t really that important for what you do.

Q4 – The Quadrant of Waste. Everything here is not important and not urgent. Any tasks in this quadrant should be avoided and not done in excess. What’s interesting about this quadrant is that some activities here can belong in Q2 because they help you relax, rejuvenate, and build relationships with people. However, when done too much it’s a waste of time. Watching TV can help you relax (Q2) but done in excess is a waste of time (Q4). I love playing board games with friends (Q2) but when I go overboard for a whole evening with lots of fast food and alcoholic beverages, it becomes a Q4 activity.

The New Order Of Your Todo List

Now that you understand how the Q2 Matrix works, here’s what you should aim for:

  1. Maximize the number of activities you do in the second Quadrant (Extraordinary Productivity).
  2. Minimize the Quadrant 1 activities to the bare necessities.
  3. Avoid anything in the bottom half of the quadrant.

Sounds simple, right? In theory, yes.

In reality, it takes a little bit of practice to get this nailed down. When you do, it feels very freeing and you feel in control of your life. This is a great way to start your day and build momentum to have Asian Efficient days, weeks and months to come.

As you can always expect from AE, everything we teach is actionable and we like to give our own modern twist to what’s working today. So let’s go back to our earlier example and now put every todo list item in one of the quadrants:

Q1 (Quadrant of Necessity):

  • Call client Marissa re: mortgage options
  • Put a proposal together for client Joe

Q2 (Quadrant of Extraordinary Productivity):

  • Re-arrange my schedule and work hours for Johnny’s soccer games
  • Show my new assistant Dawn how to research and book flights
  • Research options for coaching on my productivity

Q3 (Quadrant of Distraction):

  • Weekly Company meeting on IT and Infrastructure
  • Update social media of my company account
  • Catchup on show Designated Survivor

Q4 (Quadrant of Waste):

  • Watch NBA playoff game of LA Lakers vs Golden State Warriors
  • Upload photos of my recent vacation with wife on Facebook

Now that we have all ten tasks in one of the quadrants, can you see how it’s much easier to prioritize now?

If we follow the guidelines I mentioned earlier, then we want to maximize the number of tasks that are in Q2 (Quadrant of Extraordinary Productivity) and then do the activities that are in Q1 (Quadrant of Necessity). This is how your todo list would look like:

  1. Re-arrange my schedule and work hours for Johnny’s soccer games
  2. Call client Marissa re: mortgage options
  3. Put a proposal together for client Joe

Wow, what a difference! It only has 3 things on there, in order. Isn’t this much easier to do and finish?

At AE, we’re big proponents of having only 3 things on your todo list for the day. This forces you to prioritize and maximize the use of your time.

That doesn’t mean we’re ignoring the other things we need to do. If we finish early, we can always add more things to do. But…you know you had an Asian Efficient day if you finished all 3 items on your todo list. You can go home and sleep knowing you made significant progress.

Note: Notice how I didn’t put all Q2 tasks on the todo list. There’s a reason for this and I’ll cover this in a moment.

From this point forward, it’s up to you order the activities in an order that works for you. Everyone’s timing, resources, and circumstances are different so only you know best what’s realistic to do first, then second, and third, and so on.

The Reality Of What You Can Do With Quadrant 1 and 2

Since we have multiple productivity experts at AE with over 25+ years of experience and we’ve helped hundreds of people through coaching, we know what’s idealistic and what’s realistic.

In a fantasy world, you would do everything in Quadrant 2 (Extraordinary Productivity) before you ever get to Quadrant 1 (Necessity) activities.

In reality, that doesn’t work for most people. Especially when it’s the first time you implement this priority system. What we typically see is that people never get to their Quadrant 2 activities at all. They logically know that they must do them, but they get distracted from everything they need to do in Quadrant 1 (Necessity) and Quadrant 3 (Distraction). In some cases, they might also do too much of the activities in Quadrant 4 (Waste).

The first step is for you to be aware where all your activities and tasks belong. Only then can you proactively work on getting your tasks in order of importance.

We usually recommend that you slot in only one activity from Quadrant 2 (Extraordinary Productivity) and make that your frog. Get it out of the way first thing in the day and then you have the rest of the day for everything else which are ideally Quadrant 1 (Necessity) tasks. Notice how I did that with the last todo list:

  1. Re-arrange my schedule and work hours for Johnny’s soccer games (Q2 – important and not urgent)
  2. Call client Marissa re: mortgage options (Q1 – important and urgent)
  3. Put a proposal together for client Joe (Q1 – important and urgent)

I re-arranged the todo list so you would start with a Quadrant 2 task (your frog) and let the rest of your day fill in the gaps of what you need to do to achieve your goal of closing 5 mortgages in one quarter.

In this example of this post, your personal goal is to be able to attend every soccer game of your kid and that requires thinking, planning and execution to make that happen. This is not an easy feat and it might happen over a period of a few weeks but once you have it figured out, you would be ecstatic, right? That’s why I put it in Q2 and not in Q1.

(Oftentimes things you put in Q2 take more than a day to accomplish. Don’t be surprised if that is the case.)

Quadrant 3 (Distraction) Example

The most interesting Quadrant, in my opinion, is Q3 (Distraction). This is where people will often confuse tasks and activities as important (Q1) but in reality, they are not. Let’s look at what we had in Q3 (Distraction):

  • Weekly Company meeting on IT and Infrastructure
  • Update social media of my company account
  • Catchup on show Designated Survivor

When you have uncertainty about your goals, everything will feel important and urgent. In this case, attending a company meeting and updating your business social media accounts might feel important. In some cases, it could be very important. In our example, it’s not. As a loan officer, do you really need to attend an IT and Infrastructure meeting every week? It might feel important to be aware of what’s going on, but is it really important?

In your personal life, do you really need to watch that particular TV show? Is it really that important to you? It feels urgent (tv shows are time sensitive) and important to you when you have no goals. I can’t repeat this enough: when you don’t have a clear picture of your goals, everything will feel important and urgent. Luckily, you do now and can see why this activity belongs in Q3 (Distraction).

In the beginning, you have to learn to say “no” to anything that’s in Quadrant 3 (Distraction) and you’ll start to learn that you have a lot of tasks in Q1 (Necessity) belong in Q3. As you get better at identifying the false Q1 activities, you’ll do less of them which results in more free time and focus on what actually matters.

In this example, attending a meeting might feel necessary but in your role, it’s really not. Sometimes we confuse feeling busy with importance. Honestly, this is one of the most challenging things to figure out. This matrix will help you identify what’s not important. When you first put your quadrants together, based on my experience, you must at least one task in there. If you have no tasks in Q3 at all, you’re confusing busyness with importance.

What Do You Do With Quadrant 4?

Finally, let’s look what we had in the last quadrant.

Q4 (Quadrant of Waste):

  • Watch NBA playoff game of LA Lakers vs Golden State Warriors
  • Upload photos of my recent vacation with the wife on Facebook

Out of all the things on your todo list, these are the things you want to avoid. They’re not in alignment with your goals. If anything, they move you away from your goals.

As I mentioned earlier, sometimes the things you put in Q4 (Waste) could belong in Q2 (Extraordinary Productivity) depending if you do it in excess. Watching an NBA game could be very relaxing and rejuvenating to some. However, it could also cost a lot of money and time (at least half a day, if not more if you’re traveling for it) that you have to consider. In this context, I would consider it “excessive” and why I put it in Q4 (Waste).

This is a tough reality we all need to be reminded of: if you want to achieve your goals, you have to be willing to give up things to achieve it. Every goal comes with a price – some more than others. A lot of these things fall in this quadrant.

Just like with Q3 (Distraction), when you put your todo list together in this Q2 Matrix, you must have at least one item in Q4. If you don’t, you’re confusing what’s important and what’s not. You might also not be willing to give up certain things to accomplish your goal which to me is a red flag. But let’s assume you have a couple things on there.

Does that mean you cannot do them at all?

Perfectionists might say “DO NOTHING IN Q4!” but let’s be realistic here. We all want to enjoy our life too. While I agree in spirit, the big idea here is to do it in moderation. I love playing video games and board games. In my current life situation, it would be considered a Q4 activity. Does that mean I will never play them? Of course not. That would be ridiculous. I am conscious that it should be done in moderation and if I do it excessively, I have to be okay with the fact that it’s slowing me down from achieving my goals.

So don’t try to be perfect. No one is. Enjoy your life but at least be aware of which activities and tasks might slow you down.

The Long Game

Over time, you want to live in the upper half of the quadrants (Q1 and Q2) and it becomes a fun game. How can you add more Q2 (Extraordinary Productivity) in your daily life and minimize the number of activities in Q1 (Necessity).

This is a lifelong journey. Even to this today, as the founder of AE, you might think I have it all figured but I don’t. I’m always optimizing what I put in the quadrants (I usually evaluate this a few times a year). And guess what…my activities are always changing. As Asian Efficiency grows, it forces me to speed up what I do and what shouldn’t do. Thus, I’m adding, moving, and eliminating activities all the time in my quadrants. Whenever I have my thinking time, I’ll often refer back to my quadrants and think about how I need to make adjustments.

The same will be true for you and all the people we have in the Dojo – our private community with the biggest productivity training library. People are posting on our private forum what their goals are and what they are doing to achieve them. It’s a great place to get accountability – especially when you tend to procrastinate on your Q2 tasks.

As you’re climbing the ladder and growing, you have to frequently re-evaluate where your tasks and activities belong. The faster the growth, the more often you need to do this.

The Difference Between Activities and Tasks

Before we move to the next actions, one thing I’d like for you to be aware of is the difference in activities and tasks. In the Covey book (and most materials you see online from others), you see examples of major life activities that are being divided. For example, “planning” and “relaxing” are major activities that you could easily slot in Quadrant 2 (Extraordinary Productivity). Just like “filing taxes” is easily slotted in Quadrant 1 (Necessity).

At AE we like to make everything actionable. While we recommend you slot major life activities in the four quadrants, on a practical level you want to do this too for your tasks. It’s good to know on a high level what you should and shouldn’t be doing. That’s being effective.

When we zoom in on the task level, we want to be efficient. That’s where ranking your tasks with the quadrants will be helpful to execute them in order.

That’s why earlier in the post I showed you an example of what an unsorted todo list looked like. Once you got clear on your goals, it became easier to sort your todo list. When we work with people, we always first want to identify what their goals are and how they can be effective (50,000 feet level to borrow a GTD concept). Only then will we drill down on 10,000 ft level and focus on being efficient.

The last step is to order your todo list and that’s really where this Q2 Matrix comes in handy.

Next Actions

Now that you understand how you can prioritize your todo list, here’s what we recommend you do next:

  1. Recreate the matrix on a sheet of paper.
  2. Take your todo list and put all tasks in one of the quadrants
  3. Once it’s all slotted, put one Q2 (Extraordinary Productivity) at the top of your new todo list.
  4. Fill the rest of the todo list with everything you have in Q1 (Necessity).
  5. Eat your frog with the first task on your list and do not move to the second task until the first task is done.

You have now successfully prioritized your todo list. Doesn’t it feel amazing?

For more actionable productivity materials, we recommend you check out the Dojo – our private training library with a community of people who are passionate about productivity. You can see examples of how others (like you) have successfully used this priority system and we have more materials that will help you achieve your goals faster (including the apps and tools you can use to implement this).

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2 Comments

Posted by Zell  | April 27, 2019 at 3:48PM | Reply

Great article. Both inspiring and actionable!

Question: Why is “Re-arrange my schedule and work hours for Johnny’s soccer games” put in Q2 instead of Q1?

Posted by Joyce  | February 9, 2019 at 11:38AM | Reply

I was looking for the Eisenhower matrix but came across this article instead. It’s much more useful! Thank you for your clear explanation on how some tasks look important but are not in actuality. My weekly review is easier now I have a better grasp on how to organize and prioritize according to my goals.

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