Tools for Personal Growth

Prioritizing Under Pressure

Part of being a good leader, whether of many or just in your own home, is being able to manage effectively and make decisions when under pressure. But not everyone realizes that prioritizing under pressure is a skill that can be developed. As a professional businesswoman and homemaker, I know this well.

Recently, I had one of those days.

You know the ones: To Do List a mile long. Looming deadlines. Last-minute “emergencies.” A client meeting in the middle of the day. A birthday dinner to prepare and presents to wrap. Not to mention I was flying cross-country with my husband and four of our five children the following day, and I had not yet packed for anyone.

That morning, I woke up and felt the panic slowly beginning to creep in. How am I going to get it all done before we leave tomorrow? Everything felt urgent and important, but the truth was, I wasn’t going to get “it all” done. That would have been impossible.

But there were some things that I had to get done, because they were time-sensitive and important. As I felt my chest tighten, my mood darken, and my thoughts starting to spiral, I turned to a tool I use with clients who are struggling to prioritize tasks when under pressure, a framework based on something called “The Eisenhower Matrix.”

Dwight Eisenhower was a man who carried a lot of responsibilities, first as a U.S. Army General, Allied Forces Commander during WWII, and NATO Commander after that, and then as the 34th President of the United States. In other words, the man knew how to get stuff done. Making decisions and prioritizing tasks while under immense, life-and-death pressure was a skill he developed and systematized in order to help others develop this skill as well.

The framework he used is exactly what I turned to that day. I didn’t have to look it up; I have used this so many times that I could just imagine the grid in my mind and quickly categorize every task accordingly. And it was just what I needed to help me focus, prioritize, and regain a sense of peace in the midst of the storm of stress that was swirling around me.

Here’s how it works:

First, do a quick assessment of the tasks and decisions before you. Ask yourself, “Is this urgent? Is it important?” Depending on how you answer those questions, quickly do one of the following:

DO IT NOW. If the task is both urgent (i.e. time-sensitive) and important (i.e. necessary), buckle down and do it now. Because of our trip the next day, tasks like cleaning out the car and packing the kids’ and my suitcases were both urgent and necessary. So was the client meeting and running to the grocery store for more cat and dog food and a birthday cake for Dad. I got to it and did those tasks that day.

PLAN TO DO IT LATER. I keep a document in my Notes app on my phone, and anything that can be done later goes on that list. If the task is important and necessary, but can wait, it goes on that list. I then block out time on my calendar for those tasks. The particular day in question, I had bank deposits to process, invoices to log, a blog to write, a letter to write, copious amounts of reading for my current seminary class, and some other things that were demanding my attention. The bank deposit can happen today, but I can log the invoices, write the blog and letter, and those other things later. Once I put those tasks on my “Later List,” I could move on from them for now.

DELEGATE WHERE POSSIBLE. One of the things I wanted to do before we left town for a week was to get my Christmas tree out to the curb before all of the needles dropped in my living room. But just the thought of taking time to remove the ornaments and get them packed up with everything else I had going on felt overwhelming. So I asked my son to remove all of the ornaments from the tree. Soon, without being asked, my older daughter began taking down the lights and garland from our staircase bannister, and the younger kids followed her lead and started pitching in to help as well. Within an hour, the Christmas decorations were mostly packed up and the tree was on the curb. A task that had felt overwhelming earlier that day was finished.

ELIMINATE ANYTHING THAT IS NOT IMPORTANT AND URGENT. Just delete it from your radar. Poof! On the day I’m describing, I eliminated cleaning the house (why do we always feel the need to clean our house top to bottom before going on vacation?!) and baking a cake for my dad (I bought one instead, but displayed it on my fancy cake stand. It was beautiful and delicious and no one cared that it wasn’t made from scratch!)

We may not be leading an army or the free world, but each of us is fighting our own battles every day. Whether we are running a company, a department, a church, or a household (or some combination of these), we face the challenge of knowing what to do when and how without losing our minds or operating from a place of stress, when we are more likely to drop balls or make poor decisions.

Getting to know the Eisenhower Matrix adds a tool to our toolbox and helps us develop a skill that every high-capacity leader must have: the skill of prioritizing under pressure.

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