Top 1% traits: master prioritisation

Whether it is a top 1% leader, entrepreneur, product manager, or engineer,… they all share common traits. I want to help share what it takes to become a top 1% in your field of business, and I will write a series about these different traits. First is mastering prioritisation.

Why prioritise?

The top 1% knows that time is invaluable. The concept is quite simple: there is a lot to do, and there is little time. The top 1% knows that time behind the desk is not the most productive way of spending time, and you need time to think. Similarly, a lot of the top 1% have much more than their ‘core’ job: they have a family, they have other engagements (such as board memberships, side projects, speaking engagements, and business clubs), they prioritise their health, so they spend a considerable amount on sports, meditation and similar, they coach people with the potential to become a top 1% as well,…

People often say: I’m glad I don’t have their schedule. I even worked with top 1% potential people but didn’t want to move up the ladder because they feared their schedule would interfere too much with their personal and professional time.

So how do the top 1% make sure that they perform at such a high level, while still having time for all these other things? They master prioritisation. In a split second, they decide on what priority something has and what the next step should be. So how do they do that?

How a former president lives on through the top 1%

For that, we have to go a bit back in history. Dwight D. Eisenhower was a general in the U.S. Army, as well as the 34th president of the United States. He is also attributed to one of the most impactful productivity models, the Eisenhower Matrix.

The Eisenhower Matrix is a model that helps you to achieve a multiple of your current productivity level by mastering how to prioritise anything that passes by you: tasks, decisions, meetings, requests,… (let’s conveniently call these all tasks). It divides input along two axes:

  1. Whether or not something is important
  2. Whether or not something is urgent

Mapping these out gives you four quadrants:

  1. Important and urgent tasks
  2. Important and not-urgent tasks
  3. Non-important and urgent tasks
  4. Non-important and not-urgent tasks

What does each quadrant mean?

Let’s run through each of these quadrants and see what they mean and how you can work with these to master your prioritisation.

Important and urgent

These are your top priorities for the day. You need to deal with these immediately, and you own the outcome directly, whether or not you are executing. Often these tasks require you to become very hands-on.

But let me be clear: you want to have as little as possible of these types of tasks. They will put you mostly in ‘crisis’ mode (that’s why I often refer to tasks in these buckets as the ‘crisis list’). Of course, you cannot always avoid these, but many people have nothing but a crisis list. So if you have too many of these crises to deal with, you may want to consider being coached or mentored to create a better structure for yourself, your team and your organisation.

Important and non-urgent

This is the space you want to spend most of your time. This is your ideal priority list (with as few important and urgent tasks), or as I would like to call it, the ‘core list’ (because it contains the core tasks you need to focus on). Tasks in this bucket require you to deal with them directly (you own the outcome). However, you still own your agenda. This means you can start planning for those, and your schedule and crisis do not dictate your life. It also allows you to spend time thinking about what you are doing. It also means that, if you do not plan for them accurately, at a point in time, they will become urgent and will end up on your ‘crisis list’.

The core list doesn’t only contain the tasks and responsibilities that come with your primary role. Here you will find everything important to you, personally and professionally. It also includes the time you need to spend thinking about things, meeting with people, spending time with your loved ones, working out and dedicating time to sports. You get the point. The goal is to manage your life so that you start planning around these core tasks.

Some valuable tips to make that planning a lot easier:

  • Be ruthless in determining what is important.
  • Work in blocks (of 1.5 hours)
  • If you work with a team: make your agenda predictable and visible.
  • Time to think is also work, so block your agenda.
  • Don’t spend all the time behind your computer.
  • Create habits around recurring events and tasks
  • Focus is precious, so make sure nothing can take you out of it.
  • Don’t spend more than 15 minutes after each block on the important emails, messages,…

Non-important tasks

It should be clear that non-important tasks should not be on your list. These don’t ‘deserve’ your time, regardless of whether they are urgent. Now that doesn’t mean they don’t come along your path. Your first triage will be to see if a task is important and, if so, whether or not it is not urgent.

In the original Eisenhower matrix, there was a distinction between both. However, in today’s world, that distinction has become less clear: think of time spent on social media or other apps. Similarly, you cannot always outrun non-important tasks. Think about scheduling sales meetings, administrative follow-up such as bookkeeping,… You could argue that they do become important by this measure, but it’s not. For you, it’s not. Remember that it is about those tasks that are important to you personally or professionally. Not because someone else thinks these are important.

So what with non-important tasks then?

  1. If they are urgent, delegate them to the proper person. If not, follow the below guidelines.
  2. Automate where that is possible. Automation is cheap nowadays and comes with an app pre-loaded on every smartphone with a recent O.S. Especially if tasks are recurring, these need to be automated as much as possible.
  3. Leveraging A.I. Generative A.I. is a huge opportunity. Save a lot of time by using A.I. to deal with these tasks.
  4. Outsource or delegate. If you are working with a team, make sure you can delegate these tasks. That can be anything and doesn’t always have to be a P.A. If you’re a solopreneur or a freelancer, consider outsourcing as much as possible. Your accountant and lawyer are prime examples of outsourcing.
  5. Don’t spend more than 5 minutes per part of the day (there are 4: morning, afternoon, evening, night, one of these parts of the day you need to spend sleeping) on stuff like social media and other apps that are a distraction.
  6. If recurring: ask yourself why this keeps coming back. Can you avoid it? If yes, find a way to avoid it (but please don’t stop paying your bills, filing taxes or submitting receipts to your accountant!).
  7. Remember, nothing happens if you don’t do anything. A lot of tasks in this bucket have invented problems or consequences. Just don’t do them. Especially the ones which are not important and not urgent.

How do I go about using this in practice?

First, don’t draw out a matrix each time; start moving your tasks around these axes to find your priorities and what to do with those that are not. It will be very impractical.

Secondly, don’t see these criteria as too rigid. You will have to figure out what makes something important and urgent. The exercise you must go through is that some tasks are unimportant and other tasks are not urgent. Making a deliberate decision about this, another top 1% trait, makes you master prioritisation: you know you can’t do it all.

Finally, I recommend that you use a task management tool. Out of mind, out of the heart. It will help you to become better and better at prioritisation. Often it’s the fact that it is still in your mind and heart that makes it challenging to find priorities. When choosing a task management tool, use the following guidelines: dedicate to one tool only, keep it simple and carry it with you at all times. I use the default task app on my iPhone/iPad/Mac/Apple Watch. It’s on every device, so whenever I need to add something or cross something off my list, I can do so very quickly. It integrates with locations neatly, and it isn’t overly designed.

Apply these principles, and you’ll immediately see that you start mastering your agenda and your time again. You will be able to spend the saved hours living a much richer and more insightful life (as determined by your standards). If you have a good tip that I forgot, don’t hesitate to send it to me. I’m happy to include it.