The truth is that to-do lists often don’t take context into account. Q1 and Q2 thinking solves that problem by forcing you to understand the difference between urgent and important. Most people don’t have a grasp of these blurry lines, but it can mean all the difference in your output. Related to this is the don’t-do list, also essentially seen in Q4 of the Eisenhower matrix. Most people know what they should be doing but not what they shouldn’t be doing. This is where you eliminate tasks that (1) are insignificant, (2) are a poor use of your time, (3) don’t help your bottom line or end purpose, and (4) have a serious case of diminishing returns the more you work on them.
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Sometimes called the Eisenhower box, and sometimes the Covey Quadrant (after 7 Habits of Highly Effective People author Stephen Covey, who popularized the idea), the table below is a simple but powerful tool to kick your to-do list into shape. We’ll call it the Q2 matrix of our purposes.
One of the premises is that different activities on your daily schedule are not all going to be of the same order and so shouldn’t be treated the same way. We all know the importance of prioritizing, but the Q2 matrix gives you a method for how to decide what gets prioritized.
It’s simple: every activity falls into one of the four quadrants, according to two features: urgent or not urgent and important or not important. Determine where each task falls on both of those axes and you give yourself a framework to rank and organize your tasks.
Let’s start with Q1 tasks—those activities that are both urgent and important. This is called the Quadrant of Necessity, since, naturally, getting these tasks done is essential for your life and work. It’s not necessarily that these tasks will massively advance your grandest dreams and plans, but rather that not doing them will have a steep cost. Anything that’s on a deadline and crucial for the functioning of day-to-day life falls in this category—for example, filling a chronic medication prescription or submitting an important project when it’s due.
Q2 tasks are in the Quadrant of Extraordinary Productivity and are important but not urgent. These are all those tasks that are vital for your well-being and the execution of your life’s bigger goals and plans, but there’s no rush to do them right now, and if necessary, they can be deferred a little. However, these tasks are still very important. By working on these high-quality activities, you bring yourself closer to your goals, making the best use of your time. Examples include reading and meditating, focusing on quality time with loved ones, self-care, journaling and organizing, learning a new skill or instrument, or adding a little bit of work to a long-term project.
The Quadrant of Distraction, Q3, are those things that are not important but urgent. Actually, in most cases it just seems like they’re urgent, in the way that distractions, addictions, anxieties, and interruptions often do. In essence, Q3 tasks can masquerade as Q1 tasks and waste your time and energy. How can you tell the difference? Q3 tasks will not be coherent with your own, internally derived goals and values (i.e., not really important). Someone knocking on your door and asking you to sign a petition about an issue you don’t care about is a Q3 task. In the moment, you may feel pressured to act, to make a decision, or to hand over your attention. It may be a question of pressure or obligation from others. These tasks can be identified by the fact that they’re not genuinely important to you, and not genuinely urgent either, although they may feel like it.
Finally, Q4 is the Quadrant of Waste—that is, all those things that are neither important nor urgent. In other words, these are tasks to avoid entirely when possible. For example, browsing online forums for hours is not important in the grander scheme of your life happiness, and it’s certainly not urgent. We can see most clearly with Q4 activities that this system is subtle and that tasks should be understood in context. For example, if a moderate amount of gaming actually helps you connect with your community and leaves you feeling relaxed, you may list it as a Q2 activity. At the same time, gaming for eight hours straight and forgoing a shower will push the activity into the Q4 quadrant.
What we can see, essentially, is that ultimately you have to decide honestly and accurately what is “important” in your life and whether it’s a real or imagined sense of urgency. To make the Q2 matrix work, you’ll also need to be familiar with your life goals and values, otherwise you’ll have no standard against which to assess each activity.
So how do you put this Q2 matrix into practice?
Firstly, try doing more Q2 activities every day. Then try to reduce Q1 activities down to the bare minimum—take care of necessities, but don’t waste too much time on these tasks. Finally, try to completely eliminate those tasks in Q3 and Q4. Sounds simple, but it could take a while to fine-tune for the unique challenges of your own life.
Master the Q2 quadrant and you’ll wind up with days that are filled with the maximum number of value-adding, life-enriching activities, the bare essentials taken care of, and few to no activities that only waste your time, energy, or money. In the process, you boost your productivity, but also your sense of personal fulfillment, self-determination, and efficiency.
Your focus every day should be on Q1 and Q2 tasks. Do the Q1 tasks and then spend time maximizing the Q2 tasks. There are different ways to do this. You could start out by drawing up a to-do list and then going over each item, asking how important and urgent it is. Identify the Q1 tasks, and if you like, rank them. This focuses you and has the effect of cutting down on overwhelm. Your Q1 list is always going to be smaller, and you know that in completing these tasks, you ease time pressure and get out of “survival mode.” In reality, very few of us have more than three genuine Q1 tasks every day. Use what you know about your energy levels and the resources you have at hand to decide which tasks to tackle first, then do them as quickly as possible.
Now, here comes the subtle art of using the Q2 matrix for your own benefit. Many people will feel like their whole lives are just wall-to-wall Q1 activities, and when they get a spare moment, they give in to Q4 activities to “relax,” while their dreams and goals go unfulfilled. In a way, Q1 tasks are their own kind of distraction, and the world of what’s “necessary” can feel like it arbitrarily expands all the time. Think of the matrix as a budget not for time or money, but for energy and intention. The sad truth is that it takes conscious effort to pursue those activities that deliberately advance your position. If you do nothing to help that process along, your life will get eaten up by necessities and distractions.
Applying the Q2 framework on your to-do list for a few days will show you where your energy is actually going every day, and this can give you real insight. For the first few weeks, you might find yourself purposefully demoting some Q1 tasks and forcing yourself to do the Q2 tasks. In the long run, it’s the accumulation of these Q2 tasks that will improve your life, while the Q1 tasks merely allow it to tick along without incident. You’ll have to experiment a little to find your ideal balance. You might choose one day to defer or delegate a Q1 tasks so that you can spend time with family, rest, or take care of your mental and physical well-being. You may find in practice that the only real difference between Q1 and Q2 activities is some creative time management—Q2 activities are those that must be done, and Q1 activities are those that must be done now.
What about the items on the list you labeled as Q3 or Q4? We’ve seen that they need to be reduced or eliminated entirely. Distracting Q3 tasks, for example, can quickly grow out of control and eat up huge amounts of time and energy, often because we falsely believe they’re more urgent or important than they are. If everything feels important and urgent, that’s a sign you lack focus and goal clarity. Without goals of your own, any stimulus or external demand can step in and convince you it needs to be a priority.
Try to actively move some items from Q1 to Q3. Ask whether this task realistically adds to your well-being and goals. Is it your necessity or someone else’s? Constantly try to shave off those things that add nothing to your life. Many people unconsciously seek out busywork and purposeless activity. Will it make any real difference in a week if you forgo this activity?
Finally, Q4. Waste undermines productivity. Monitor yourself closely to see what effects certain activities have on you. What could be addictive and counterproductive for one person could be healthy and adaptive for another. Only you can decide on what is “excessive.” It’s not possible to be 100% free of Q4 activities, but on the other hand, understand that everything in Q4 is taking away time and energy that could go to Q2 activities. Are you willing to sacrifice a few guilty pleasures to achieve what is ultimately more important to you?
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Peter Hollins is a bestselling author, human psychology researcher, and a dedicated student of the human condition.
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