Even when it’s not a New Year’s Resolution, there’s no reason we can’t challenge ourselves with setting better habits for our lives. While most of us often set health goals, it’s just as important to set work/life balance goals. One of the ways to do this is to have more control over your work so you can go home in the evening and relax.
I’m sure we’ve all had days where we feel like we have spent all day fighting fires and have got none of our ‘real’ work done. We’ve still got large projects looming over us which we don’t have time or the headspace to work on.
For many of us in social media or digital media roles, we wear many hats – a combination of strategic and creative thinking and planning, as well as the day-to-day – and it’s really hard to be strategic when you’re also managing day-to-day challenges.
How can you balance both strategic thinking and day-to-day tasks? Well, it involves trying a new approach to organising your task list.
Since reading about the Eisenhower Decision Matrix to help with productivity, I’ve been exploring this method for a few years. If you haven’t heard of it – I got into the deets later. I find it’s a really useful way to get productive and tick off the essential things you need to do each day.
Urgent vs Important
I feel like the one key concept we need to start with is the difference between ‘urgent’ and ‘important’.
Former US President Eisenhower said: “I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”
This has evolved into the Eisenhower Decision Matrix, where all work can be divided into four categories:
urgent and important – a short-term, urgent ‘fire’, such as a sales pitch that has just landed, or an aggressive, unhappy customer on social media who is wheeling out the legal eagles.
important and not urgent – Strategic thinking and planning – such as your plans for the next financial year, or the campaign planning for next month.
not important but urgent – Things time critical – but not essential the business bottom line, like many emails or meetings.
not important and not urgent – Let’s face it, this is time wasters like which Instagram filter should I use for this pic?
Here’s the matrix:
Based on understanding these tasks – we can organise our to-do list based on this.
Now, in a perfect world, I’d suggest doing what you can to start on the ‘important’ tasks for an hour or two at the start of your day. Before you even open your email, spend two hours coming up with that strategy you need to work on, or those new concepts or designs. Before you enter the fray of solving and juggling a million problems, do the genuinely important work first.
However, I know that in the 24 hour world we live in, emergencies can pop up every day, especially for those who work in social media, so we do want to spend some time focussing on these at the start of the day – but only the true fires. That email about the sales figures for the monthly report? That can wait til after lunch, right?
Our daily checklist could look like this when we come into the office could look like this:
a) fight fires overnight – glance over your email and see if there are any real fires. Spend no more than 5 minutes doing this. If there are any fires, address them.
b) spend some time single-tasking doing deep work or the ‘important’ strategic thinking/planning tasks. This is the stuff that matters when it comes to the annual report.
c) then jump into the important but not urgent – many emails and meetings would fall into this category. This is the daily stuff that needs to get done, but if it happens a few hours later, or tomorrow, it’s ok.
d) finally, you can chill out with the ‘nice to do’ items – maybe this is coming up with new Facebook cover ideas for each month.
With this method, you’ve a) sorted out any fires which happen b) had time for strategic thinking c) worked through your other day-to-day tasks. This means you’ve really conquered the important things and you’ve made progress with your day!
Now, it sounds impossible, but the reality is that if you set a few processes in place, you can execute this new schedule – but you need to change the way you do organise your day.
Let’s look at how this could work in a regular office day:
To do list
The first thing you need to do is to have a to-do list every morning. A physical list, where everything is out of your head and on paper. This means your brain isn’t cluttered with the million things you need to do.
From there, organise your list and put no more than three things in each of their Eisenhower quadrants – what are the things you need to work on today? What are the important things you actually need to cover? What are the fires? What is the work that can really wait til after lunch? Remember that each item on your to-do list might be an hour, so be mindful of how much you’re actually putting on your list if you’ve only got 7 hours in your day.
I would actually recommend writing this list at the end of the previous workday so when you come into work, you know exactly what you’re focussing on and the only quadrant you need to fill in is you ‘urgent fires’ pile based on a review of your email for 5 minutes in the morning.
FREEBIE: I’ve made a super cute version of the Eisenhower Matrix as a To Do List – download it below!
Your morning sweep
For many people, the first thing they do is check their email and social channels to see what’s the buzz is. It’s easy to get drawn into emails or social posts and get sucked into a vortex you never return. The reality is that most of these emails or posts are ‘not urgent’ emails which could wait till after lunch. Will anything collapse if you don’t respond within the hour? Push it back a few hours.
One approach – if you really feel like you need to give your colleague a response to an email immediately – is to say ‘I’ve got another project on this morning – but I’ll respond by 4 pm’. Acknowledge the request – but don’t let it take up your brainspace yet!
I would challenge you to do a sweep of what’s happening on social and see if there are any legitimate fires (ie. “if this is not responded to in an hour, there will be a lawsuit”. If so, add these to your “urgent and important” quadrant). If there is not, then park the entire process of responding to emails or social media management until after lunch (or whatever time you’ve finished with your ‘big ideas’ time.
The reality is that few things are sent via email that are actual emergencies – people will phone or come over in person if they need an immediate response. This means shutting off your email means you aren’t likely to miss anything urgent. (Go on – I dare you. Turn off your email for an hour and see if you miss anything!)
The difference between responding to something at 9 am vs after lunch is pretty minimal if it’s not a fire. And using this Eisenhower Method, you’ve already dealt with your fires first thing.
As an extension to this – I am also a big fan of removing your work email from your mobile so you’re not tempted to look it outside of hours. In France, this is actually the law – so to ignoring work emails outside of work, I say oui!
Multitasking vs singletasking
Okay, so you’ve swept for your fires, and now you’re doing your ‘deep work’. What does this mean? It means you’re just doing one task.
The jury is out on whether humans can ‘actually’ multitask. Conflicting studies are released all the time – but the essence is that you’re not really multitasking, but you’re just doing one task, and flipping between then rapidly – and doing each task poorly. Additionally, because you need to re-adjust to focus on each task as you switch back and forth between, you lose time. Admittedly, seconds, but this can add up to minutes or hours if you’re juggling too much.
Focusing on a single task allows you to sink into the task – completing it quickly and more efficiently. The buzzword around this is ‘deep work’ as opposed to ‘shallow work’.
As an experiment in a previous job, I had a colleague who worked on our weekly newsletter in amidst checking emails, social media and other projects. I suggested he switch off his email and social and see how long it took to create the newsletter. The job went from taking three hours to one. Singletasking conquers again!
And while it’s easy to say that we should all switch off our emails and ignore our colleagues, it’s harder in real life. However, you can simply talk to your colleagues to explain where you’re at. Tell your colleagues that you need to focus on a specific task and can’t be interrupted from 10am – 12pm and put on some bulky headphones to make it clear you aren’t available. Or book a meeting room and work there for two hours. Or turn on an out-of-office on your email and say you’re focussing on a project for a few hours.
Carving out time for you to do deep work doesn’t need to be rude, especially if you set expectations with your colleagues before you tuck in. Even better – perhaps your company could get involved with a rule of no meetings before 12pm, or having a no meeting day.
PROTIP: Batched Inbox is a Gmail extension which prevents emails from entering your inbox unless it’s at specific times like 8am, 12pm and 3pm. You can also try Boomerang, where you can set specific emails to return in a few hours.
Your day-to-day tasks
Once you’ve fought your fires, and done your strategic thinking – the rest of the day is your day-to-day tasks.
You can leave the office feeling like you’ve tackled the important things on your to-do list and made progress on those other tasks or meetings which happen.
This is the time when you can manage your inbox, plan your social media updates for the next week, respond to the community for the queries that aren’t urgent.
PROTIP: If meetings sap up your day, get a physical wristwatch back in fashion and keep an eye on the time. If there’re ten minutes left of a meeting, either call for a resolution or delegate that someone creates some recommendations to be reviewed in another meeting. Don’t let a meeting run overtime – create a culture of respecting everyone’s time.
Reflection and prioritisation
I would encourage you to regularly reflect on your day to help you prioritise what is important or urgent as it comes up during the day. Spend 10 minutes at the start of work, at lunch, and at the end of the day reflecting on each thing that happened, what the next steps are and the true priority of each item.
Don’t just do a task as it comes up – assess it if is urgent, or if it can be done later, or another day. It’s hard to do at first – but it just takes practice!
Write your to-do list for the next day at 4.30pm, so you can reflect on if there are any last minute things you need to work on before you wrap up your workday at 5 pm. When you come in the following day you know what your key ‘deep work’ tasks are so when you get to your desk, you’re not dictated by the cries of your inbox.
Reflection is important because it helps you connect the dots and make sure you’re not overlooking anything and gives your brain time to solve problems.
As you can see, being more efficient at work might require a change to the way you work – but once you give it a go, it’s really transformative in the way you manage time.
Are you going to try it?
Are you going to implement the Eisenhower approach? Or do you already use aspects of it? What parts work for you? Let me know in the comments!
Don’t forget; I’ve got the snazzy download below where I’ve jazzed up the Eisenhower Matrix into a gorgeous to-do list. Grab it below.
Start your day focussed with this gorgeous to-do list designed to increase productivity, inspired by the Eisenhower Decision Matrix. Download it now!
Want to work with Rachel?Rachel Beaney is a writer and social media content specialist, helping businesses connect with their audiences.
She’s worked with local, national and global companies, in addition to not-for-profits and government bodies. She loves helping businesses tell their stories with creative and data-driven solutions.
She is based in Sydney, Australia.
Want to work together? Rachel would love to hear from you. Get in touch today.