Every productivity and management guru and their mother says you should work on your priorities. In fact, the 3rd habit in Stephen Covey’s bestseller The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, is ‘Put First Things First’:
“Putting first things first means organizing and executing around your most important priorities. It is living and being driven by the principles you value most, not by the agendas and forces surrounding you.”Stephen Covey
For an entrepreneur, though, almost everything seems like a top priority. How do you determine what you should spend your best hours when everything seems urgent and important?
There are a few frameworks that can help you think through your mountain of tasks and figure out the few things that can really matter to your success.
Prioritization Framework # 1 – Opportunities vs Problems
It is more productive to convert an opportunity into results than to solve a problem – which only restores the equilibrium of yesterday.Peter F. Drucker, The Effective Executive
Effective executives concentrate on the few major areas where superior performance will produce outstanding results.
Are you problem solving or working on an opportunity? According to Drucker, working on opportunities should take precedence over solving problems. Solving problems may prevent you from potential losses but doesn’t do much for growth.
Working on opportunities moves you forward. As business owners we can end up spending a significant part of our day problem solving. But if we carve out a portion of the day to work on opportunities, and do that consistently every day, two things will happen:
- We’ll start making real progress towards our business goals
- Over time, lesser problems and emergencies will pop up. We would’ve prevented most of them from even showing up while we’ve been consistently working on opportunities.
The point is not that we ignore problems. Unfortunately, no business is without problems and they need to be solved. The point is that we consistently make time to work on opportunities.
Prioritisation Framework # 2 – Deep Work vs Shallow Work
I’ll let the following extracts from Cal Newport’s life changing book, Deep Work, do the talking:
Deep Work:Cal Newport
Cognitively-demanding, requires focus without distraction, and you apply hard-to-replicate skill sets. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time.
Deep work will make you better at what you do and provide the sense of true fulfillment that comes from craftsmanship.
In short, deep work is like a super power in our increasingly competitive twenty-first century economy.
Shallow Work:Cal Newport
More logistical/basic tasks that don’t require tremendous amounts of attention or skill.
Unfortunately, as entrepreneurs, logistical, administrative shallow work is a core part of our job description. However, this ‘busywork‘ shouldn’t take up our best hours. As long as we can consistently carve out 1-2 hours for Deep Work everyday, ideally on opportunities rather than problems, we’ll make more progress in a week, than we would have in the months without the Deep Work.
Does your task list have any tasks on it that qualify as Deep Work as defined by Cal?
If not, then you need to re-think your to-do list.
Prioritization Framework # 3: Urgent vs Important
What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.Dwight Eisenhower
This is also known the Eisenhower Matrix, named after Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th President of the United States. Eisenhower came up with this principle to help him make difficult decisions about which of his many tasks he should focus on each day.
Most entrepreneurs for most of the day will be focused on the ‘urgent + important’ or even the urgent but less important. There’s something about urgent tasks that make our adrenalin flow. A couple of quick calls that solve a crisis. An urgent email to a client that saves the deal from going sour. There’s a masochistic satisfaction entrepreneurs feel at the end of a stressful day of crisis management.
While every competent entrepreneur finds the time to work on ‘urgent and important’ tasks, true competitive leverage lies in tasks that are not urgent but important. These are the tasks that contribute to our mid-to-long term goals.
Working consistently on tasks that are urgent but not important not only moves us closer to our goals, but is also preventive. This type of work prevents crisis from arising in the first place and leads to a calmer stress-free work environment. For example regular one-on-one meetings with team members are important but not urgent. But ensuring that you are disciplined about such meetings can prevent employee performance or retention related crisis from arising.
Prioritization Framework # 4: Impact vs Effort
Entrepreneurs love the high impact, low effort zone. Quick and easy tasks that make a tangible impact on our business always get our time and attention.
However, it is the high effort + high impact tasks, the tasks that require deep work, that offer the greatest growth potential. These are the tasks that you need to carve out undistracted time for.
Are you carving out time for tasks that take time and effort, which can possibly create disproportionate results for your business?
Prioritization Framework # 5: Drudgery Zone vs Desire Zone
I recently read Michael Hyatt’s Free to Focus, and found this fascinating concept called the Freedom Compass:
According to the Freedom Compass your tasks fall into one of four zones:
- Desire Zone
This is work where you’re highly proficient and passionate. This is your highest leverage work.
- Disinterest Zone
This is work you’re good at, but not really passionate about. You can make a living with this work, but your heart’s not in it.
- Drudgery Zone
This is work you’re neither passionate about, nor proficient in.
- Distraction Zone
Tasks in this zone are those that you are passionate about but not good at.
Ideally, we should be spending as much time working on our Desire Zone tasks. This work can bring us the most success in the least time. Instead our days are full of Drudgery and Disinterest zone tasks. This could be because we haven’t really figured out our Desire Zone yet. And that’s why Michael Hyatt used the term ‘compass’. Its the direction we want to go. We could get there by cultivating more passion about work we’re already quite good at, or by getting better at work we’re already passionate about. Looking at your tasks and projects from this lens, you can prioritise those that get you closer to your desire zone.
To summarise, when you’re staring at your mountain of tasks, pick something that:
- Represents an opportunity
- Requires Deep Work
- Is important but not urgent
- Has high impact but also requires high effort
- Moves you closer to your Desire Zone of work where you are both highly passionate and highly proficient.
Work at least one task that fits the above criteria, without distraction, every single day and you’ll start seeing the impact on your business within a couple of weeks.