Where to spend your time: An effort vs value perspective

If you are lucky enough to have some control over how you spend your time, my advice is to think carefully about how you do so.

The simplest answer, which is common for some employees, is “I’ll just do what they tell me to do.” This has the merit of being easy to implement and requiring little mental effort on the part of the individual. It can be a solid strategy when there are immediate items that require significant attention (unfortunately, these are often negative, like a sick family member).

However, there are much better options out there.

When I think about how I spend my time, I use a simple 2×2 matrix with axes labeled Effort and Potential Value, which looks like this:

Keeping it this simple means it’s quick and easy to use. You take the group of items you are thinking about and put them in the grid. Note that the scale is relative to the range of options you are considering – for a weekend, an hour might be low effort and a full day might be high, while for a year, a few days would be low and a few months would be high. 

Once you have placed your items, look at them through the following lens:

1. Low Effort / High Value Potential

If there is anything in this box, do it. These are often phone calls, meetings, or presentations that can make an outsized contribution to achieving your objectives. They don’t take much work and can have great rewards if they go right.

2. High Effort / High Value Potential

These are the big projects that you expect to provide significant returns. They require significant planning and are often found as “annual goals” in companies. The main advice here is to check in often to reassess the “value” part of the question. Lose focus and it may turn into the next category.

3. High Effort / Low Value Potential

These should be avoided if at all possible. These are items that take significant effort but no one seems to understand or appreciate the work required or the value derived. If you end up working on something in this quadrant, the task is to redefine it – either find a way to make the value more meaningful and visible, or failing that, figure out how to spend the least amount of time possible on it and drop it to quadrant 4.

4. Low Effort / Low Value Potential

This is a tricky category as there are two potential outcomes here, and it’s hard to see which one you are heading towards. The positive one is a string of steady, small wins that build over time, adding to your reputation as a solid player who gets things done. The negative one is a string of low value tasks that becomes monotonous for you and generally ignored by others. 

For myself, I use this lens about every two weeks as I find things can shift relatively quickly. When I go through my review, I do it as follows:

  • If there is anything in quadrant 1, I do it as soon as possible
  • I then try to make sure I spend a significant amount of time in quadrant 2
  • If I find myself spending time in quadrant 3, my top priority becomes getting out
  • And then I check on my quadrant 4 activity and try to make sure I’m staying on the steady, small wins side of the ledger

Ultimately, this is an example of what I mean when I advise people to “manage the probabilities”.  If you give it a shot, let me know how it works.

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