About a year ago, I started realizing that I’ve been putting off major projects or tasks even though they’ve been sitting on my long list of to-dos for ages. We all know the feeling — these few items on the list that have been there forever, but we never seem to be able to check off… but they’re important or precious enough for us to not be able to delete them either.
As a pre-leaning perhapstinator (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, take this fun quiz), this was obviously a problem. I know many of the things I should be doing are important, but it’s hard to get around to them.
I started exploring both why and how. Why is it difficult to get these things done? How can I stop procrastinating on them and start making good progress towards these goals?
Ultimately, I ended up with a To-Do Matrix that works really well for me, that I’m still using to this day. I’ll share our links to the matrix below, but let’s explore two important aspects that helped me shape the design of the To-Do Matrix!
There are two parts to the “Why” question:
- Why do I feel the need to do this?
- Why should I do this instead of something else?
The first is a question of motivation, and the second is related to prioritization.
When we can see, logically or emotionally, how something will get us where we want to go, we will internalize and be motivated to do something about it.
The takeaway here is to examine your goals and how each project or task contributes to it.
There are a few dozen other things you could be doing at the moment, but why this particular task now? This is generally related to urgency — deadlines, seasons, emergencies, etc. It could also be a matter of one goal being more important than another (as above).
There’s a very popular prioritization framework called the Eisenhower Matrix (or Urgent-Important Matrix), which Dwight D. Eisenhower, 34th President of the US, created to help him make decisions on what to focus on each day:
This is a good starting point for how we can adapt this to our own to-do decisions, leading to…
The “How” part is equally important, and there are also two factors here:
- We procrastinate when we have a vague idea of how to get to an end goal.
- Trying to adopt a complicated system makes it unlikely that we’ll stick to it.
Getting to a list so you can check it off like a precrastinator
The important insight I had is that I often procrastinate on things that I have no idea how to approach, even if I’m super motivated to do them (in theory).
In order to start tackling big things like “Start a new blog” or “Learn a new skill,” you need a game plan with multiple sub-steps that will get you there. Often, just writing out a few immediate steps will get you started well enough that you can flow from there.
And once you’ve worked out the immediate things you need to do, you just have to actually do them, and check them off the list.
A simple system that takes the “Why” into account
As I started to figure out how to make the Eisenhower Matrix actionable, I combined it with some theories from Getting Things Done by David Allen. The gist of GTD, an actual registered trademark, is “Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.”
With all that said, I needed my own matrix to work in important ways to address all of the attributes above:
- Remind me often what I’m motivated to work towards
- Help me prioritize tasks among others
- Break down sub-tasks quickly as I’m brainstorming them
- Easy to dump new ideas I have on to, so I don’t just hang on to them in my head
- Simple enough that I know where to put my focus every day, with cues about what to do next and if I’m making progress
I ended up with this To-Do Matrix that I still use today:
Creating Structure and Clarity
The emphasis of the To-Do Matrix is to be explicit about what you want to do.
- The top left of the page, in your immediate line of sight when you open it, should be the key focus every single day. This is the daily to-do list that I stick to and try to finish. It’s even in my habit journal — “Complete to-do list”. You don’t have to rummage around a long list every day to try and figure out what you should be doing!
- Your priorities probably don’t change that often, and neither do things that you won’t touch at the moment. So these are further down the page, which you only have to review once a week.
The caveat here is that you must try to be disciplined about (1) breaking down the sub-tasks, and (2) reviewing what you need to do daily and weekly — which may not take as long as you think.
The guide on the Matrix explains the details of how everything works together. Basically, when you are planning, you go bottom to top, and when you’re executing, you go from top to bottom of the Matrix.
The key takeaway for me, having used it for the last year, is that the more you can understand what you want, and how to get there, the more satisfied you’ll be with your own progress!
Copy the To-Do Matrix out and make it your own:
- You can copy and use it directly on Notion with our template.
- Alternatively, you can copy our Google Docs version.
- You can even just write it out in your own notebook/journal!
Give it a shot and let us know what you think at firstname.lastname@example.org!