Those of you who are familiar with my materials will know that one of the subjects that I frequently write about is the resistance principle. This is the principle that the thing you should do first is what you are resisting the most.
I have often contrasted this with Steven Covey’s Quadrant 2 theory (from “First Things First”), in which the principle is to do what is important first.
Covey talks about four quadrants: 1) Important & Urgent, 2) Important & Not Urgent, 3) Urgent & Not Important and 4) Not Urgent & Not Important. According to Covey the problem most people have is with Quadrant 2, the important but not urgent. The reason they have a problem is because the important gets submerged under what is urgent.
Although I can see what Covey means, I have never really felt that his theory reflects how most people actually think when they are working. In my experience there are plenty of people who are just as capable of putting off something that is important and urgent as they are of putting off something that is important but not urgent. Frequently the same people will fill their days with stuff that is neither important nor urgent.
In other words the reason important things get forgotten is not because they get submerged by urgent things – though it may sometimes look like that.
As I have frequently said, prioritising by importance doesn’t work, because the question is not how important something is but whether it should be done at all. If it needs to be done, then it needs to be done and, all other things being equal, it doesn’t particularly matter what order it’s done in as long as it all gets done.
So I was pleased to read a book by Ken Blanchard (of One-Minute Manager fame) in which he says very much the same thing. The book is called The On-time, On-target Manager (One Minute Manager) In it, Blanchard gives a different quadrant from Covey’s. It’s one which in my opinion is much more geared to the way we actually think.
His quadrant is 1) Have to Do, Want to Do 2) Have to Do, Don’t Want to Do 3) Don’t Have to Do, Want to Do 4) Don’t Have to Do, Don’t Want to Do.
People don’t have any problem with Quadrants 1 and 4. If they have to do it and they want to do it, then they just get on with it. If they don’t have to do it and they don’t want to do it, then they just don’t do it. The problem lies with the other two quadrants.
What tends to happen is that people tend to do things in the order Quadrant 1), Quadrant 3) and only then Quadrant 2). The result is that a lot of things that don’t have to be done get done, while a lot of things that do have to be done don’t get done. Sound familiar?
The solution is to change it so that you do them in the order Quadrant 2), Quadrant 1) and forget about the other two quadrants.
To use this simple method of prioritising, write a list of all the things that you feel you must do, should do or could do. Then to the right of the items put two columns HAVE TO DO? and WANT TO DO? Then tick each item in the relevant columns. Challenge yourself fiercely about whether each item really needs to be done or not.
You then do the items which have a tick only in the first column. And only when you’ve finished them do you do the items which have ticks in both columns.
And then go home!
[The original version of this article was published in my newsletter in August 2004]