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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Productivity

This To-Do List Strategy Just Makes Sense (and That's Why it Works)

How often do you find yourself failing to get through your to-do list?

And no, including “Write to-do list” just to give yourself something to cross off immediately doesn’t count as a win.

Of course, it’s not always your fault—every fire drill that pops up just keeps making your list longer and longer.

“We’re just too busy going through our lives, trying to keep the balls in the air and our heads above water, [so we don’t think]: Is there a better way to do this?” says Maura Thomas, founder of and author of Personal Productivity Secrets.

Turns out, there is—if you take a tip from Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Popularized by Stephen Covey, but based on the productivity principles of the former president, the Eisenhower Matrix helps you categorize your to-dos by their level of importance and urgency so you can decide where to focus your energy.

By sorting your tasks into one of four clearly defined categories, the Eisenhower Matrix forces you to evaluate what is really worthy of your time—and what can be delegated or even nixed altogether.

Below, we offer examples of the kinds of activities that fall into each category. See how you would divvy up your to-do list; then follow Thomas’ advice on how to tackle each type so you can accomplish more in less time.

Category #1: Important and Urgent

Your assistant gives her notice—and her last day is tomorrow. A rush client request throws a wrench in a project that was going smoothly. These tasks are considered a crisis or have critical deadlines that you have to meet.

How to Tackle Them

Since you can’t predict when crises will pop up, assume they’ll happen and leave room for them in your schedule.

“Most people overschedule themselves, but if something goes wrong, all your plans fall like dominoes,” Thomas says. The solution? Don’t fill up more than 60% of your productive time.

For example, if you work from 8 AM to 6 PM, leave about four hours on your calendar blank to allow for emergencies. If there are no emergencies that day, you’re in luck and can get ahead on the next day’s tasks.

Category #2: Important But Not Urgent

Scheduling a networking lunch with a hiring manager. Getting a leg up on planning your family vacation. Brainstorming long-term objectives for your team. These tasks influence your big-picture goals, but don’t necessarily have a burning deadline.

How to Tackle Them

Most of these items will be large projects rather than daily to-dos, so break down each into bite-size deadlines to help you get started, says Thomas.

For any items you can’t break down, determine a set amount of time you can work on them that feels short to you, so the task itself feels less overwhelming.

Thomas also suggests including only three important-but-not-urgent tasks on your daily to-do list so you leave time for emails, meetings and crises—and whenever possible, work on them during the times of the day you feel most energized.

Category #3: Not Important But Urgent

Emails, phone calls, questions from co-workers—these are the things you have to address immediately, even if they don’t help you with your larger goals.

How to Tackle Them

“The easiest way to control your distractions is to control your technology,” Thomas says.

First, check your email in batches only a few times a day—say, every three hours, or after you complete a more important task. To ensure you stick with it, quit your email completely so you’re not tempted to check alerts.

The same goes for your phone: Silence it completely—then put it away in a drawer or face down on your desk so you don’t see the alerts.

And if you’re receiving too many calls or queries from co-workers outside of the period of time you’ve set aside for them, simply close your office door, put on headphones, or place a “do not disturb” sign on your chair or cubicle wall.

Category #4: Not Important and Not Urgent

Whether it’s logging expense reports, creating contracts or filing papers, “these are the tasks that won’t have a big impact on our work once we do them, yet they don’t go away,” Thomas says.

How to Tackle Them

Outsource as many of these tasks as possible by delegating them to a junior employee or, for personal chores, a virtual assistant, Thomas suggests.

Even if you have to pay for outside help, the hours you gain back to accomplish a more important goal—like finally making headway on that next big career move—could help you come out ahead financially in the long run.

Related: 6 People, 6 Balancing Acts: The Brilliant Work-Life Hack That Saves My Sanity

Photo of to-do list courtesy of Shutterstock.