Everything Can’t Be #1: Managing Workload Stress
> Use the Eisenhower Matrix to prioritize and filter your tasks and activities
A couple of months ago during a quarterly project review meeting, one of my co-workers, let’s call him “Greg,” was presenting his current projects.
The purpose of these quarterly meetings is to present our projects and tasks with others on the team and to the department head to get direction, feedback and/or advice.
Each project has a priority ranking of A (high), B (medium) or C (low) and current status of open, pending or completed.
Here is Greg’s project list (had to manually block out project stuff for confidentiality - didn’t have de-pdf'er).
Did you notice that nearly all of his tasks had a top priority ranking of “A”? Pages 2 through 5 looked pretty much like page 1.
What do you think his success rate was in getting things done?
You guessed it. It really sucked.
But, if you saw him during the day, you’d think he was getting stuff done. He was bouncing from phone calls, emails, powerpoint, meetings, excel, etc.
He treated nearly all incoming tasks and requests as top priorities. He was working on all “to-do’s” simultaneously instead of working on the right “to-do’s” at the right time.
He often worked late into the evening yet didn’t get any real work done.
It’s this constant and never-ending “shallow work” that doesn’t allow for meaningful progress on the stuff that really matters.
Sound like someone you know?
We confess - we’ve been like Greg before and still to this day, we sometimes backslide into the same behavior.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of only doing the things that are right in our face at the moment. It’s the endless quick email replies, returning phone calls, doing a little bit of one project then jumping to another one, hopping from meetings to conference calls, knocking out small mini requests back-to-back etc.
Then, you look at the time and it's already 6pm.
The work never ends. You feel like you’re spinning your wheels and not getting anywhere and that’s the rub.
There will never be enough time to do everything. There will always be more work than available time to do them. Especially in this era of lean workforce organizations.
So, how do we handle this and get to the stuff that really matters?
Solution: The Eisenhower Matrix
The Eisenhower Matrix is a way to filter all of your tasks down to the ones that matter most and that will directly contribute to your personal, work and career goals. It’s called this because it’s credited to Dwight Eisenhower, the 34th president of the U.S.
Eisenhower was a total badass.
Before becoming the president, he was a five star general in the U.S. Army, Supreme Commander of Allied Forces during WWII, Supreme Commander of NATO and president of Columbia University.
During his two term U.S. presidency, he created the programs and plans for the US interstate highway system, the research agency that developed the basis for this thing called "the Internet", space exploration with a little outfit called NASA and tons of other incredible stuff.
But, he didn’t do all of this by himself. His accomplishments were due in part to his team and knowing when and how to do things through a decision method he created, which we now call the Eisenhower Matrix.
This matrix uses two key elements of “importance” and “urgency.” Importance is how much a particular task has direct relevance to you. Urgency is how time sensitive the task is.
Let’s break this down and take a look at how this matrix can help you prioritize, limit and manage your workload. We’ll go through each quadrant.
Quadrant 1: Important and Urgent
Action: Do It Now
These are reactionary type tasks that are typically the result of missed deadlines, crisis issues, pop-up fires and asap requests from above that directly impact you, your goals and responsibilities.
These are the “must do now” things. They overrule everything else in the matrix.
These are short-term tactical issues that have to be sorted out in order to make further progress on your related projects. In other words, it’s fixing or completing a short-term “X” issue or request so that work can continue on your long-term “Y” project goals.
Here are some examples:
- Boss or executive request to be completed in one hour (as if we don’t have other work to do)
- Completing daily and/or weekly mandatory actions on time to keep your projects moving
- Running to the bathroom before you piss in your pants from all the coffee you had
- Working with the IT helpdesk to fix your crashed computer or software program
- Fixing a sudden faulty data feed before it turns into a big hairy mess of a problem
A lot of times, many of the Q1 items are things that are out of our control but are within our scope of responsibility and part of our goals. It’s impossible to prevent crises and fires from appearing in your day-to-day work. They will happen.
An effective way to minimize the stress of Q1 tasks is via the 4A Method as outlined in the free online Stress Less E-Course here.
Specifically, you can apply the Avoid, Alter, Adapt or Accept options to cope with Q1 stressors.
> Avoid: Is there anyone else on your team or your manager that can step up and help?
> Alter: Can you find a compromise and buy more time in sorting out the Q1 task?
> Adapt: What positive things can be gained from solving/addressing this task?
> Accept: Can this Q1 stressor improve your skills in any way?
By applying the 4A method and staying on top of Q2 tasks, you can keep Q1 stressors to a minimum.
Quadrant 2: Important And Less Urgent
Action: Schedule It And Stick To It
This is where you want to be most of the time and where you want your goal-oriented tasks and projects to fall into. This is the top 20% of your work that results in 80% of your success.
Q2 tasks are directly relevant to you and support your efforts in achieving your short and long-term job-related tasks and personal goals. While they don’t have ‘asap’ or unscheduled emergency deadlines, we need to hold ourselves to a realistic plan for completing this tasks.
Caution: if you don’t complete Q2 stuff on time and consistently, they will end up in Q1 in a much messier way, which means more undue stress for you.
Here are some example Q2 tasks:
- Reviewing your projects weekly, sorting next steps and completing follow-up actions
- Preparing for your annual performance review ahead of time
- Prioritizing your overall health and wellness to maintain stress immunities
- Having friends-n-family fun time to bring more joy, laughter and happiness into your life
- Assessing your personal and career development progress and direction
The biggest issue with Q2 items is that most of the time, they can easily be put on hold or pushed back. And when that happens, it opens us up to doing more of Q3 or even worse, Q4 tasks.
It’s like exercising. We all know we should be doing it. But, it’s too easy to just say, “I’ve got way too much going on at work right now. I don’t have the time or energy to go to the gym. I’ll go next month when things calm down at work.”
Then, the month flies by and you’re saying the same thing again.
Don’t be that person. Exercising at work can be done easily.
Remember, Q2 stuff is super important, both in your work life and personal life. It will ultimately provide us with real, substantial and meaningful progress, success and happiness in life.
Determine what is important to you personally and professionally. Then, lay the groundwork and fundamental elements that will ensure that you stay on track and on schedule.
Quadrant 3: Less Important And Urgent
Action: Delegate And Be Very Selective
Stuff in this quadrant are the superficial or shallow work that give you a false sense of getting shit done. But in reality, the shit that is getting done isn’t directly supporting your real short and long-term goals and objectives. It’s usually benefitting other people not you.
A lot of us make the mistake of categorizing Q3 tasks as Q1. And it’s hard to blame us for it. Q3 tasks are a sneaky bunch.
Some Q3 tasks will land on our desk like a fireball. This automatically triggers our stress response and work instinct to gather our fire extinguishers of personal effort, resources and time to put out the flames.
Some people thrive on this false sense of productivity because they’ve solved a problem - it just wasn’t their problem. For things like this, delegate or refer the requester to more appropriate resources or contacts.
Other Q3 tasks are more subtle but just as bad in terms of stealing your time and resources away from real work getting done.
Here are a few examples:
- Being “required” to join a meeting when you friggin’ don’t need to be there
- Co-workers asking for help on something that has little-to-nothing to do with you
- Random phone calls from vendors, suppliers, partners, recruiters, etc.
- Super long and annoying voice mails from those same people above
- Getting “voluntold” to join a committee or group on non-work related bullshit
All of these Q3 tasks take time away from making real progress on your goals.
The most vulnerable people that get caught up in Q3 tasks are the “Stressed Out Office Pleasers” that can’t say no to anything. They accept all requests and try to handle everything on their plate. This is quintessential "Greg".
It’s their biggest downfall.
To them, completing Q3 tasks feels like meaningful progress because they are actively involved in supporting or leading an important task or issue. Yes, they’re busy all day long but they are not getting any of their own real work done. Then, their Q2 tasks turn into Q1 tasks all the while more Q3 requests appear. It’s a vicious cycle of unproductive busyness.
Now, we’re not saying that you shouldn’t help out your other co-workers. You should. But, keep it within reason and establish limits so that you save time, energy and space to work on your Q2 stuff.
A good boundary limit would be your boss (duh), fellow team members and your work BFF. When you know they desperately need help and you offer support, they’ll really appreciate it. Then, later on when you’re jammed up, they’ll step up and give you a hand.
If anyone else beyond this boundary asks for help, tell them, "Sorry, I'm totally maxed out. I've got tons on my plate already." Then, return your focus to some incognito desktop meditation. 😉
Quadrant 4: Less Important And Less Urgent
Action: Keep It To A Minimum
Activities in this quadrant aren’t important to you as they don’t directly support your goals and don’t have any pressing urgency. These are the things we sometimes do to kill some time. Or more simply and honestly, it’s when we’re just fucking around doing some mindless shit.
The productivity die-hards will tell you to stop doing anything that falls into Q4. We’re not part of that crowd. We’re realists here. After all, we’re huge fans of stupid internet cat videos.
We think doing certain Q4 stuff every once in awhile (like adult coloring) can be a great way to mentally decompress. And one could say that some types of Q4 stuff can actually be categorized as stress relief activities, therefore it’s really not Q4 but could actually be Q2 as part of overall health and wellness.
Then, there are Q4 stuff that are truly time-wasters that don’t do anything to make us better.
Here are some common Q4 things that we’ve all done before:
- Scanning through our social media feeds
- Vegetating on the couch and channel surfing TV
- Getting sucked into late night infomercials
- Giving into clickbaity headlines
- Playing brainless games on our smartphones
It’s okay to dabble in Q4 stuff every once in awhile, but don’t let them consume a significant amount of your time. Because if they do, you’ll eventually get crushed by all of life’s other priorities.
Here's Our Recommended Strategy
- Focus mainly on Q2 activities to make real progress at work and improve your life overall
- Minimize and offset stress from Q1 tasks by applying the 4A Method
- Limit your Q3 tasks to your boss, teammates and work BFF then redirect or delegate the rest
- Dabble in Q4 every once in awhile and don’t let it grow out of control
This graphic roughly puts things into a more visual perspective.
Focus mostly on doing real Q2 stuff that needs to get done, even if they are hard and/or less desirable. It’ll give you bigger and better returns over the long run than any other effort.
If you can follow this, you’ll be farther ahead than a lot of folks and you won’t feel like a hamster running on the spinning wheel.
* * * FREE BONUS PDF * * *
To help you as a reminder, you can download and print this pdf file of the four quadrant matrix and the visual perspective. Pin it to your cubicle wall or anywhere that it can act as a constant reminder.
Here's a short video clip that summarizes things nicely and hits the main points.
VIDEO: The Eisenhower Matrix
The bottom line - by selectively filtering out all of your activities, tasks and requests that don’t positively help you reach your goals, you will...
1) Limit your workload to the things that matter
2) Reduce unnecessary added stress
3) Get *real* work done
4) Move closer to achieving your goals
Oh and about Greg - he’s gotten better about truly prioritizing his projects. Now, the A’s are really A’s and there is a more accurate distribution of B’s and C’s. He’s doing alright, but he’s no Eisenhower.
And honestly, neither are we, but each time we use this matrix, we all get a little bit more “Eisenhower Power” in us.