Prioritising: Eisenhower and Eating Frogs

We are all busy. We have many things competing for our attention all the time. In this week’s blog, I want to introduce you to the techniques that I use to help me to prioritise all the things I have to do. They really work!

The Eisenhower Matrix

The Eisenhower Matrix or Grid. It’s often drawn in a different configuration, but I always think of it this way, like a graph!

The idea is simple. You make a simple grid with four quadrants, as in the image above, and you place the tasks on your to do list in one of the four quadrants according to how urgent, and how important, they are.

  • Quadrant 1 – urgent and important: DO NOW. Items in the top right corner of the grid are the most important and the most urgent. They need to be done right away and they cannot wait. The aim is to work smart to make sure as few things as possible end up in this quadrant, by doing them in plenty of time so they don’t become urgent. But sometimes, stuff happens, and it needs to be dealt with right away!
  • Quadrant 2 – important but not urgent: WORK IN THIS ZONE. This is where I try to spend most of my time. Here, you are dealing with things that are important, but not yet urgent. Spending time in this zone should prevent things moving into quadrant 1 where you get panicky as the deadline approaches. It’s also really satisfying to know that you are spending your time on the stuff that matters.
  • Quadrant 3- urgent but not important: GET RID. This is stuff that needs to be done but you don’t really want to spend time in this quadrant. Get this stuff done as quickly as possible – or, if you are lucky enough to have someone else around, get them to do it for you!
  • Quadrant 4 – not important and not urgent: DON’T BOTHER. If it’s not important, and it’s not urgent, don’t bother! Just be careful that the thing you’re not bothering with now won’t actually become important later – otherwise, it might suddenly pop up in quadrant 1 and send you into a panic!

When I first came across the Eisenhower Matrix, it was in a work context. I have used it ever since to help me prioritise my work as a teacher, a school leader, and as a Headteacher. It’s become so ingrained in my mind that I have found it also spills over into other parts of my life as well! Sometimes, the most important thing to do is spend time with your family, or go for a walk, or to take some exercise. Prioritising those things alongside work is essential for my own wellbeing. Over time, I think I have got better at weighing up which I need to prioritise and when – but nobody’s perfect and we’re learning all the time.

Which leads me to my second technique.

Eat the biggest frog first

“If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.”

Mark Twain

I first came across this quotation from a colleague Headteacher, who shared it with at an event she was leading. It really stuck! What Mark Twain was saying is that, sometimes, we have unpleasant things to do. Things that we don’t want to do, but unfortunately we have to. In those situations, it’s best to get them out of the way as soon as possible. And, given the choice of two things you could be doing, it’s best to get the most difficult and horrible one out of the way first.

I’ll be honest, I don’t always follow this advice. Sometimes, like anyone, I’ll put off that difficult and horrible job and tick off a few simpler and easier ones first. But I know I’m delaying the inevitable and that, sooner or later, I’m going to have to eat that frog. So, wherever possible, I try to follow Mark Twain’s advice and get on with that difficult, horrible job first. Get it done, get it out of the way, and after that everything else seems like plain sailing.

But don’t actually eat a frog. It’s a metaphor. You knew that, right?

Getting your priorities straight

I have found that these two simple techniques really help me keep my priorities straight, and make sure that the important work of running a school gets done. Students could apply these techniques to their school work and home life priorities; maybe even some of the grown-up readers of the Headteacher’s Blog might find them useful too? Let me know if you did – or let me know how you prioritise and make sure you get stuff done. We’re always learning!