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How to focus on what matters most

Whether you are an individual contributor, manage a team, or run an entire practice, being able to set clear and effective priorities is a critical part of your role. Prioritization is crucial because of the incredible volume of data, ideas, and options available in a hectic veterinary hospital environment and in everyday life. If we do not want to drown, then we must be open to exploring ways of prioritizing so we know what to say “yes” to and what to avoid. Being able to sift through the noise and set clear priorities allows us to accomplish the tasks that have the greatest impact and deliver the results we seek.

But effective prioritization is often a huge challenge for even the most talented and driven professionals. Why is it so hard, and why do so many suffer from initiative overload? One part of the challenge is being able to sort and rank which tasks are most important.

One way to determine which tasks are most important, and therefore what to focus on, is to use the Eisenhower Matrix to determine what is urgent and important.

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Grab a piece of paper and draw a cross to make four quadrants representing importance and urgency. Important activities have an outcome that leads to achieving predetermined goals. Urgent activities demand immediate attention and are usually associated with achieving someone else’s goals. They are often the ones we concentrate on, and they demand attention because the consequences of not dealing with them are immediate. Each of the four quadrants represents a different work strategy and priority level. The top left quadrant is for tasks that are both urgent and important; tasks in the top right are important but not urgent. The bottom left quadrant represents tasks that are urgent but not important, and, finally, the bottom right includes tasks that are not important and not urgent.

Place each of your work or personal goals within the matrix according to their importance and urgency; then plan to tackle the tasks accordingly.

First quadrant: Tackle first

Quadrant 1 contains tasks that are both urgent and important, so these are the tasks that need to be your first priority. These are the critical tasks for your life and career that cannot be delayed or skipped without negative consequences.

Second quadrant: Plan it

Quadrant 2 has the tasks that are important but not currently urgent. These are the kinds of tasks that you want to plan ahead for and build out a schedule to tackle them. These kinds of tasks could be related to relationship building, new opportunities, future strategy, and making improvements to existing systems, so this is where you want to invest most of your time.

Third quadrant: Delegate it

The third quadrant represents tasks that are urgent but not important, meaning they will not add value to your day or work. Think of the tasks that do not bring you closer to achieving your professional or personal goals—those are the things that belong in this quadrant. In fact, these are the tasks that are often the most distracting to your productivity, such as some emails, meetings, and phone calls. When focusing on your priorities, it’s ideal to delegate these kinds of tasks so you can complete items in your first and second quadrants. If you cannot delegate them, be mindful of the time involved with completing these tasks, and reconsider whether any can move to the fourth quadrant.

Fourth quadrant: Delete it

Fourth-quadrant items are both not important and not urgent, meaning they should be avoided entirely. Checking email throughout the day and responding to unimportant messages are great examples of fourth-quadrant tasks that can be removed from the productive hours of your day. Busywork of any kind or things you know are ways to procrastinate are other examples of what goes in this quadrant. Avoiding them or moving them to free time will help you to spend more time delegating tasks and tackling the items you have in the first two quadrants instead.

Want to learn more about setting and sticking to your top priorities and getting things done? Join me at the 2020 virtual Connexity conference, where I’ll be discussing how to optimize your day and stick to a plan that will work for you. Can’t make it to Connexity? Join me at the Beyond Medicine Workshop to dive deep into the real-world skills of being a veterinarian.

Learn more about the Connexity 2020 virtual and on-demand conference.

About the author

Mia Cary, DVM, is a consultant, speaker, and facilitator specializing in leadership, communication, and teamwork with the purpose of activating others to thrive. She is the former chief of professional development and strategic alliances for the AVMA and chief innovation officer for the North American Veterinary Community. Prior to those roles, Cary held education and leadership positions at Boehringer Ingelheim and Novartis Animal Health and worked as a small-animal practitioner in Gainesville, Florida. She is a champion for Pet Peace of Mind and is a past president of the American Association of Industry Veterinarians. She is CEO and change agent for Cary Consulting as well as CEO of the Pride Veterinary Medical Community. She also serves on the board of advisors for the Veterinary Entrepreneurship Academy. She lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with her husband, John; three bonus kids, Dakota, Carson, and Grant; and cats Louie and Leo. She is leading the Prioritizing Prioritization: The Why and the How session at the 2020 virtual Connexity conference.

Photo credit: © Gettyimages/