The Secret to Doing What’s Important in Life and Work

When I was running an online marketing company in Beijing in 2009, my coach introduced me to this classic time-management question: “How do you handle each type of task in the below table?”

This model is also known as the Eisenhower Method, from a quote attributed to Dwight D. Eisenhower: “I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”

The answers are relatively easy:

  1. Urgent and important: you do them.
  2. Urgent but not-important: try to delegate.
  3. Not-urgent but important: make time for them.
  4. Not-urgent and not-important: don’t do them.

The last answer can be a bit surprising for some (“don’t do them”). But implementing that one is not hard.

The real problem comes with the not urgent but important tasks. These should be done, but the urgent tasks always get in the way.

Tomorrow is usually the busiest day of the week.”
– Spanish proverb

Eventually those not-urgent, yet important tasks will come back to bite you. They slowly transform into evil monsters: very important, very urgent tasks. Finding the time and self-discipline to keep these creatures at bay is one of the most difficult productivity struggles we all face. It’s the key to working on what’s important in life.

important tasks tomorrow

There’s always tomorrow.

Who are they?

Before we get into seven tips to deal with this crucial issue, let’s put a face to a name. Here are some typical important, yet not urgent tasks:

  • Thinking about long-term strategy for your company.
  • Doing your bookkeeping (processing expenses, receipts, etc.).
  • Developing yourself through reading, watching presentations, and so on.
  • Reviewing and optimizing your work flow (productivity system).
  • Sleeping.
  • Writing down and reviewing lessons learned.
  • Exercising (going to gym).
  • Meditation.
  • (Weekly) team meetings.
  • Big tasks such as preparing next year’s budget or writing out a new business idea.
  • Planning your week / month / year.
  • Seeing friends and family.
  • Taking breaks (throughout the day, but also holidays).

Surely you can come up with more. The point is that this is not only about work. It’s also about refueling by taking breaks, developing yourself and making time for friends and family.

In fact, I’d argue it’s especially about refueling. If you’re inspired, motivated and full of energy, you will do your best work. One super-hour counts for four regular ones.

Yet as soon as we get “too busy”, we often neglect exactly those activities that contribute to our super-hours: reading, disconnecting, exercising, getting a good night’s sleep, having fun with friends.

So the real question here is:

How can we give urgency to the truly important tasks without a fixed deadline?

1. Do them first

I’ve written before about eating the frog. It comes down to doing your day’s most dreaded task first. The trick is as simple as it sounds, yet incredibly powerful. For this reason, we should try to expand this concept and use it to our advantage more often.

Daily frogs
On a daily basis, instead of having one frog, we can expand it to eating two frogs:

  1. The “rare” frog: spending time on a long-term, important task.
  2. The “regular” frog: your most dreaded task for the day.

In my case, this means I usually start my day with meditation, going to the gym or even reading a book for half an hour. I know these are the type activities that really benefit me, but they’re the first to be ditched if I plan them for later in the day.

With one of those tasks under my belt right off the bat, I then eat my “regular” frog.

Weekly frogs
Besides merely viewing your day through “frog-goggles”, you can also apply this concept to your week. Say your most important project for the week is working on the 2016 budget.  Make it your “weekly frog” by putting in a few hours on that task right away on Monday. With the week still fresh, you’ll be less pressurized with looming “finish-before-the-weekend” deadlines.

important tasks rare frog

Now this is a rare frog.

2. Get them rewarded

Traditional companies encourage hard work. Employees putting in long hours are usually revered. The result? People cut back on holidays, would never think of going to the gym in the middle of the day and are too tired to pick up a book when they come home in the evening.

Ironically, I know few people who don’t feel at their best after coming back from a real (no email) holiday. They had time to sleep, spend time with loved ones and read lots of books. Most importantly, they had time to think. This always leads to inspiration, energy and motivation.

Why then do colleagues and bosses not encourage this behavior? Companies should support things like:

  • Obligated holidays every three or four months.
  • Bonuses for reading books.
  • Forcing people to take the afternoon off.
  • Encouraging meditation and exercise.

Some organizations are already implementing these type of measures. For (self-driven) people doing knowledge work, I’m convinced these are the type of behaviours that drive excellence, not the amount of hours worked.

Talk with your boss to see what’s possible. Or if you’re in charge of your own time, reward yourself for spending time on activities that give you energy and inspiration. Stop feeling guilty for taking some time off in the middle of the day!

3. Wielding the stick

If you’re convinced investing in your health or brain is critical for success, why not punish yourself for postponing those essential activities?

One way is to expose yourself financially, by putting money on your goal using a service such as Stickk. You assign a goal (i.e. finish an online course on Growth Hacking), an amount and a referee. If you fail, your money is gone (to a charity or other purpose of your choosing).

Another option is to talk with your boss. Why not ask him or her to set goals for non-work-related targets and be held accountable? Unless your boss is extremely short-sighted (I know, they do exist), there would be very little reason not to encourage your ambitions.

important tasks anchor

4. Attach small goals to existing anchors

Another problem that keeps you from doing these important, yet not urgent tasks, might be having too big aspirations. “Run a marathon” sounds daunting, but “run 10 minutes every day” is a lot more feasible. The same goes for reading a book a week (try “read 5 minutes every day” instead), starting a company (“work 15 minutes per day on my business plan”) and many other great ambitions.

Existing anchors?
As Charles Duhigg wrote in The Power of Habit, it’s easier to learn a new habit by latching on to an existing one.

The classic example is flossing: most people have the habit of brushing their teeth, so if you want to start flossing, aim to do it right after you’ve brushed your teeth. This increases the chances you will remember to do it and turn the behavior into a new habit.

You can apply the same trick to those small goals:

  • Aim to read ten minutes every day after lunch.
  • Do some meditation immediately after waking up.
  • Work on your business plan first thing when you sit down at your desk.

You can even attach to locations as opposed to mere activities. I always write at my best in the coffeeshop, so as long as I go to a coffeeshop at least once per day, I’m sure I will write.

Combining the trick of small goals with existing anchors is a really powerful way to ensure you spend time on those long-term, yet not urgent tasks.

5. Invite external pressure

A typical characteristic of important, not urgent tasks, is that they usually don’t have an impending deadline. Unfortunately, setting imaginary due dates for yourself doesn’t work for most people. We need external pressure.

Applying third party forces can be done in many ways, some examples:

  • Schedule a presentation about a topic you want to learn about (for friends, colleagues, your local community).
  • Find a partner to do exercise or sports with.
  • Ask a friend who you know is not too soft, to check in on the progress you’re making on that business plan.
  • Start a weekly newsletter for your blog posts 🙂
  • Start a book reading club.

As you can see, there are many ways to invite external pressures. Done smartly, they can add more value beyond just adding pressure (e.g. giving a presentation on a topic will deepen your understanding).

There’s nothing wrong with inviting some external pressure; it’s very human not to stick to your own internal deadlines.

6. Mood matching

Finding the right activity or habit to latch onto (as discussed under point 4 above) is not only about finding empty slots of time. Also consider what you’re giving up by planning a certain activity at a specific time.

For example, if your peak performance time is early morning, it might be a “waste” of time to go to the gym then. Instead, why not go to the gym during your regular afternoon dip? This is exactly what Twitter and Medium Founder Evan Williams does:

I used to go to the gym first thing in the morning. Exercise is, of course, great for energy levels and I believe it makes me more productive no matter what. But energy and focus naturally ebb and flow throughout the day.

My focus is usually great first thing in the morning, so going to the gym first is a trade off of very productive time. Instead, I’ve started going mid-morning or late afternoon (especially on days I work late). It feels weird (at first) to leave the office in the middle of the day, but total time spent is nearly the same with higher energy and focus across the board.”

This example clearly shows following the most obvious or “socially-accepted” routine, is not always the best choice. Of course your options also depends on your work environment (boss).

If you have flexibility in your schedule, it makes sense to re-evaluate how you plan your day. Figure out which activities fit best with your natural energy rhythms.

Don’t want it all

Every author wishes for the reader to learn and apply something from their writings. Yet I hope you will not follow all of the above recommendations.

The easiest way to make yourself miserable and not get anything done is to expect too much of yourself. If you try to do all of the above with five activities at once, surely you’ll become frustrated and fail.

Instead, pick one activity you enjoy most (but never get round to do) and apply two of the above strategies which resonated most with you. This gets you off to a good start and helps you keep the urgent and important monsters at bay!

3 Comments The Secret to Doing What’s Important in Life and Work

  1. Pascal

    Hey Tim,

    I just wanted to say thank you for all the great posts and information you and your team are producing!

    I´m really looking forward to more content and also hope that Saent is doing well!

    Best Regards
    Pascal

    Reply

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