Stephen Covey describes in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People an important principle that can be used to prioritize tasks effectively.
He wrote that there were four types of tasks that can crop up on the to-do list. Here they are:
Q1 – Important and Urgent
These are things like completing job applications right on time, or revising for an imminent exam. Your brain tells you they are important because they are. They can be crises, or things that are unforeseen that temporary block the path to your goals. They are tasks that you cannot delegate because you are the only person that is able or required to do them.
Q2 – Important and Not Urgent
This is the quadrant of task that we want to strive to be doing most of the time – doing meaningful tasks without the urgency of a deadline or the stress of unforeseen incidents. Of course sometimes it is unavoidable so we will spend some time in the Q1 too. Examples of tasks that may be important but not urgent are: exercising to stay fit and healthy, quality time with loved ones, writing the book you’ve always wanted to publish, self-education, journaling, meditation, volunteer work, hobbies etc. These tasks are important in the long run, but skipping these type of tasks are easy to do. These tasks tend to either stay on our to-do list for far too long, or they are the type of task that we start once we “find the time”. These tasks also cannot be delegated.
Q3 – Urgent and Not Important
This is where we can accidentally spend too much of our time. Tasks like doing laundry, work meetings, catching up on emails. They tend to be interruptions, or people trying to pull us away from important tasks by getting us to attend to urgent tasks. We favor this type of task because we have a bias to what’s immediately in front of us, but in the long-term it takes away tasks from the previous quadrant. Think about whether these tasks need to be done, and if they do, whether they can be delegated or outsourced. Spending too much time in this quadrant can leave you feeling overworked but unfulfilled.
Q4 – Not Important and Not Urgent
Activities like watching junk TV-shows, mindless web-surfing, scrolling through social media, and playing video games are examples of this type of activity. They are neither important nor urgent, but are ways that we can sometimes use our time. The next time we think about how little time we have for Q2 activities, we can immediately look to the amount of time we are spending on Q4 activities. In the grand scheme of things, these type of activities are the ones we are likely to look back on in the future and see them as a waste of time. As much as these give us a nice big dollop of dopamine in the moment, we should limit these types of activities.
By spending more time doing important tasks we end up spending more of our lives doing things that give us meaning and fulfilment. By focusing mainly on Q2 tasks, we can know that we are checking the right boxes on our to-do list and in the right order, instead of procrastinating with trivial tasks in Q3 and Q4. If we end up making the progress we are looking for consistently, we can then truly enjoy our next Netflix-binge instead of feeling guilty about it.