Prioritisation is a huge part of modern life.


Prioritisation is an ESSENTIAL part of modern life.

I’m not talking solely about Agile here either. Yes we plan stories, yes we prioritise them to get them into the backlog but I’m aiming at a higher level. Life lessons that are useful to all of us.

How do we know what to do next? Perhaps you lean on your gut feeling to order your to-do list. Maybe it is real-time cost and budget implications that influence your priorities or does it come down to who shouts loudest?

Why is prioritisation important?

The experts would have us believe we are living through the Digital Age, also know as the Computer Age. Increasingly this has been more accurately redefined as the Information Age.

The society we live in today truly bombardes us with information. Whether it be TV, mobile, emails, blog posts, status updates, tweets, likes and check-in’s we are rarely unconnected to modern day life and have a vast amount of data and information at our disposal.

This flood of information leads to a problem: we often confuse the importance of everyday tasks and activities.

For instance how many times have we said “I don’t have time to read” or “I’d love to be able to go to the gym more”. Perhaps a more honest way to say this is “reading is not a high priority for me” or “I prioritise other activities higher than going to the gym”.

The decision not to spend time reading or working-out in the gym means you are spending time on other activities you consider more important. Consciously or unconsciously, we prioritise our life. The key is to prioritise effectively.

The Focus Quadrant

I’ve been introduced to a framework that helped me to grab this idea of effective prioritisation and certainly opened my eyes to some of the mistakes I made previously.

Stephen Covey, a sadly deceased educator, author and businessman, designed a matrix called The Focus Quadrant that categorises activities and helps us deal with the struggle of prioritisation by clearly outlining the conflicts involved.


Description Examples
A. Important/Urgent Tasks that are necessary usually deadline driven or time sensitive. This usually this means panic and problems. Fixing the server crash, firefighting a site outage, entering expenses before a deadline
B. Important/Not urgent Activities in direct alignment to your goals. Typically these tasks involve planning ahead. Prevention rather than cure. Relationship building, researching your next API, learning a new coding language, taking time out to exercise
C. Not important/Urgent Activities that seem important but in reality are not. It’s thought these tasks will make you popular as you are responding to requests for your time. Going to a meeting, answering the phone, replying instantly on IMs or email
D. Not important/Not urgent While it would seem pleasant enough to live here permentantly, in reality these activities are time wasters that should be eliminated as much as possible. Playing video games, surfing the net, getting a tea or coffee, flicking through the magazine on your desk

How does this help?

Covey’s point is that if we have a long list of items and activities and we are struggling to prioritise them, spending 20 minutes writing the list down and assigning each task A, B, C or D can help clarify importance.

For me the interesting part is that we should not be spending too much time in A. This goes against our natural reaction that A is good - probably the fault of our education system. In fact category A is considered beneficial only in the short term. We are not overly productive even if we spend a lot of time on A category tasks. We really want to shift our attention to more longer term plans.

Category B on the other hand is considered the sweet spot. This is where we are doing our best work. It is where we will be ticking off a lot of our important long term goals. Yes we all have different goals but the majority of the goals we want to achieve fit into B - non urgent and important.

For category C there is a great saying ‘The quadrant of deception’. These are tasks we THINK are urgent but in reality they are not. Considered to be a distraction, get used to politely saying no to any activities in the C category. We should look to regain control of our time and not be forced to respond when it suits others.

Finally category D is the worst place to spend your time. It’s okay to roam across each of these four quadrants but if we identify we are spending too much time in quadrant D we need to step back, reassess and pick up a task more aligned to our goals - ideally something from category B.

Money => mouth

While this is useful in theory, we of course need to be realistic. You should factor in time for impromptu interruptions - saying no to every meeting isn’t possible and this isn’t an excuse to push back difficult tasks. However, the next time your to-do list gets unmanageable, take time out to clarify your priorities.

Now my current my to-do list looks like this…

  1. Investigate a blip in our API performance (A)
  2. Scope out our next API (B)
  3. Improve the way our current API deploys to production (B)
  4. Send out a team update to interested parties (C)
  5. Go and grab a cup of tea :) (D)