The 5-Minute Solution That Can Transform Your To-Do List
Not sure what's next? Try the four-quadrant system to maximize your impact.
There are days when my to-do list feels electrified. Every task pulses with urgency, and the page has so many starred items, it resembles a constellation. Whether you’re an employee, entrepreneur, manager or CEO, you’ve probably felt the same way. It can be difficult to know what to work on, or where to start.
The answer lies in a single word: Impact.
Find the activity with the biggest potential for improvement. Apply it to your largest numbers — including metrics like customers, money, exposure or savings — and you’ll see exponential results. That’s the impact equation. Individuals, teams, departments and entire organizations can use this approach to make decisions and set strategic priorities.
The four quadrants of impact
You can download the four quadrants image using this link.
We all want to do meaningful work, but it’s not always easy to identify which activities will produce the biggest dividends. If you’re facing this dilemma, make a list of all the possibilities. Note that this isn’t a straight-up task inventory; sometimes the printer needs more paper, for example, whether you want to fill it or not. Instead, write down all the projects or focus areas that are competing for your attention.
Next, sketch a simple four-box chart. You’ll refer back to this chart as you assign the letter A, B, C or D to each item on your list. Here’s how the letters break down.
Small number + small benefit = low impact
Fixing a tiny product glitch for a handful of people lands in quadrant A. These are low-risk tasks with an equally low payoff, but that doesn’t mean they’re useless. For example, when a developer joins our company and starts JotForm bootcamp, we ask them to tackle minor software bugs. New hires need to get up to speed before making critical product changes, so these low-pressure, low-stress tasks can be a great way to learn.
However, beware of getting stuck in quadrant A. Low-impact tasks drain time and energy, and they tend to include cyclical maintenance work. A complicated product, for example, will never hit zero bugs. If two people examine the same feature, one might see functionality where the other sees flaws. Spend the bulk of your time on higher-impact activities.
Small number + big improvement = negative impact
In 2012, Microsoft released Windows 8 to compete with Apple’s visual interface style. Microsoft invested huge amounts of time and money to create a confusing, cluttered operating system that most mouse-and-keyboard users rejected.
“Microsoft was chasing the iPad hard,” Tom Warren wrote in The Verge, “and the company went head on into touchscreens while forgetting what people actually use their PCs for.”
Windows 8 is just one example from thousands of products, projects and companies that fail to assess the numbers (and understand their customers). That’s why quadrant B is a danger zone. Proceed with extreme caution here, and remember that if you invest precious resources in big improvements, applying them to small numbers will actually produce a negative impact.
Large number + small improvement = modest impact
Surgical complications can be devastating for patients. They’re also expensive for health care providers — and they’re often preventable. Back in 2009, researchers asked surgical teams at eight international hospitals to adopt a 19-item checklist for all operating room procedures. A year after the teams implemented the list, average patient death rates dropped more than 40%, while complications fell by about a third.
A checklist is a small, low-effort improvement for a complicated field like surgery. But the results can be dramatic and even life-changing for a large number of people. In our company, we often release small design and feature updates that require minimal effort, yet changes that satisfy lots of users are always worthwhile.
Large number + big improvement = major impact
You’ve hit the jackpot. In this quadrant, your efforts can produce exponential results. Maybe you develop a game-changing product feature that deepens customer loyalty, or you create content that dramatically boosts organic traffic.
Keep in mind that you can measure impact in many different ways — and the sheer quantities don’t need to be jaw-dropping. For example, we recently implemented an HR system that will make life easier for all of our 300 employees. Compared to X.X million users, 300 is a small number, but the change provides tangible and ongoing benefits for the people who power our company.
Quadrant D is the sweet spot, but how do you find these projects? Look both inside and outside yourself or your organization to pinpoint the biggest wins. In our company, that means crunching user data and exploring how to support a large group of customers with high-impact initiatives. We also look outward to find opportunities fueled by technical, cultural and organizational shifts: How are people working now? What could make us all more productive? Ask questions and stay open to new possibilities.
List. Assign. Repeat.
Try the four-quadrant system to tame an out-of-control task list or develop monthly, quarterly and annual priorities. It scales from days to years and from individuals to companies. The process will also become faster and more intuitive with repeated use.
In addition to providing clarity when you’re feeling overwhelmed, working for maximum impact will quiet that nagging voice we all hear sometimes — the one that asks if you’re really making the most of your time, and if you’re actually doing meaningful work. Decide what matters, where you’re willing to make major improvements, then choose the right numbers to multiply your impact.