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Setting Priorities: When everything feels important

Is your desk or life messy because everything feels important? Do you spend time on the thing that takes your fancy at the moment while the rest of your responsibilities fall to pieces around you? Try some of these strategies to set priorities and let go of the guilt.

Identify your priorities at the macro level. If you have a huge "to do" list that just makes you feel overwhelmed, consider backing up a level and mapping out the big picture elements of your life. Create categories that describe your life best. Need ideas? Consider: health, environment, career, personal growth, money, school, creativity, fun, religion, self-care, home.

I might map my life this way:

As I look at this map, I think about what's most important to me. My spouse. The activities that fulfill me, like Thinking Big Thoughts, writing, and working with people through Messy Desk. I don't have a huge social life. I'm an introvert with a few very close friends. That means my house isn't a social hub; it is a retreat where I can just be. You see a lot of self-care items on this map. I don't have children to care for, and I manage my time so that I am able to do those things that I love. Right now, all of my "productivity" goals are aimed at making more time for writing, learning, and hanging out with my spouse and pets. Even long-term health goals fit that aim; I want to have a long, quality life in which I am lazy and creative.

The Eisenhower Matrix: Urgent and Important

This is the most common matrix you will see for determining priorities. To use this matrix, you have to identify what tasks you consider important, and what you consider urgent.

I find that a lot of people have a hard time differentiating between "urgent" and "important." Sometimes it feels very "urgent" and "important" to do something like upcycling a gorgeous piece of furniture you just found at a flea market. RIGHT NOW. However, if you have a deadline tomorrow for the work that pays your bills, that deadline is probably more urgent than the craft project. Since your reputation at work and possibly your income relies on meeting deadlines, it might also be more important. When we are adulting, we sometimes have to put off the fun and soul-enriching thing in order to do the boring thing for a little while. The trick is to accomplish the boring things as efficiently as possible to make more time for the fun.

Tip: Make the fun thing your reward for completing the boring thing. "I can't refinish that dresser until I finish the annual report." That way, you get a little boost of happiness when you finish the report, and you have more motivation to finish it as efficiently as possible.

The Action-Priority Matrix

I recently discovered this version of the Eisenhower matrix on and I like it better for conceptualizing priorities. I think it is easier to decide how much effort something is going to take instead of how urgent it is. The word "impact" also reminds me that important things make a long-term difference.

Break major projects into Quick Wins. Every major project is made up of many small steps. When I clean my living room, I pick up all the trash, empty the trash can, take dishes to the kitchen, put away and arrange items on horizontal surfaces, dust, and vacuum. "Pick up the trash in the living room" is a quick win that feels good to check off a "to do" list.

Some projects have both steps and sub-steps. For an annual report at the office, you may have to gather data, analyze it, write up the analysis, and make future plans based on that analysis. "Gather data for annual report," however, might require identifying the needed data and where files are located, requesting access to those files, and compiling disparate sources in one place. My first quick win is "Make a list of needed data."

Work backwards from deadlines. Many big projects have deadlines. As you are breaking up your projects into smaller pieces, set a timeline for completing each step and sub-step. If you tend to underestimate how long it takes to finish things, then add a small cushion at each step of the process, or a large cushion at the end. Giving yourself extra time will allow for the unexpected slow-down or distraction, and if you complete the project before the deadline, you have time for doing something you enjoy but might have less impact.

Spend most of your time on Quick Wins. Once you have major projects broken into manageable pieces you will spend most of your time running through your impact-driven To Do List, ticking things off. Avoid doing "fill-in" tasks until you have downtime from Project Planning and Quick Wins.

Matrix with bottom axis effort and side axis impact. Four quadrants, from top left: quick wins, major projects, fill ins, thankless tasks
Action-Priority Matrix: Graphic ©Marie Jones

Delegate what you can. In the Eisenhower matrix, the bottom left quadrant is often labeled "Delegate." "Delegating" makes perfect sense for an executive or manager, but is harder to envision if you are the one to whom items are delegated.

Delegating might be about outsourcing. If you can afford it, hire a housekeeper, have meals or groceries delivered, pay for a laundry service, or hire a personal assistant.

Delegating might also be about sharing household responsibilities. My spouse does the grocery shopping and walks the dog; I deal with all things technological and clean the cat litter. Children can do their share of basic household tasks like doing dishes or vacuuming, too. A carpool can pick up children from school. Friends can share meals.

You can also "delegate" tasks with technology. Streamline office workflows with automated forms and responses. Set up automatic bill pay for everything. Use online banking. Have a robot vacuum or mop clean your floors. (They have robot window washers, too, now) Write text or email messages when you have time and schedule them to be sent at the appropriate time. To avoid wasting time talking to robo-callers, use an app to screen calls (like Google call screening) and then block those numbers. Check on children and elderly relatives with tracking systems, automated pill dispensers, web-based baby monitors, emergency alert buttons, etc.

Make a do not do list. Finally, see if there are activities that you can simply eliminate from your life. Is there redundancy in a workflow at the office? Is making a bed daily really necessary? (This BBC News report quotes prominent dust mite researchers who say it is probably healthier to leave your bed unmade!)

Thankless tasks are those that have no positive impact. This, like all the other categories, is a very personal call. My office has piles of paper because I consider filing materials that I am working on daily to be a thankless task. The piles don't distract me; sometimes they motivate me ("If I finish this project, I can throw this pile away").

Identify and eliminate activities that waste time and energy: Playing Candy Crush all weekend. Using drugs or alcohol to excess. Binge-watching the latest hot series. Spending time with people who don't enhance your life. Worrying about things that are already over and done with, or obsessing about future possibilities beyond your control. You get the idea. It doesn't mean that every minute of your life has to be "productive" in a work-harder-make-more-money kind of way. It does mean that if you want to refinish furniture AND meet your paid work deadlines, you can't ALSO re-watch three seasons of Game of Thrones this weekend.

I had a conversation recently with very smart young woman who said:

“I have all the tips. Everyone has told me all kinds of things about setting priorities. I still don’t know what to focus on next.” -G. K.

No simple matrix can make your priorities clear. It takes practice, planning, and reflection. Scheduling that planning and reflection time into your life is a useful habit. If you still have a hard time identifying priorities like G.K. does, consider asking a life coach (hint-hint) or very patient friend to walk through your planning with you. Don’t give up! Planning and prioritizing is a skill that can be learned and doesn’t come naturally to many people.


Put the Action-Priority Matrix on your desktop or laptop wallpaper to organize files or remind you to prioritize. Get it here.

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