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Episode 54 — How to Hotwire Your To-do List for Maximum Progress

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#54 — In this episode, we offer you a simple test that will clarify the proper priority for any item on your to-do list—or reveal that it shouldn’t be on your list at all.

Hosted by Bitesize Bio’s own Dr. Nick Oswald featuring Kenneth Vogt of Vera Claritas.

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This is an automated transcript and may not be 100% accurate.

Intro/outro (00:08):
This is The Happy Scientist podcast. Each episode is designed to make you more focused, more productive, and more satisfied in the lab. You can find us online Your hosts are Kenneth Vogt, founder of the executive coaching firm, Vera Claritas, and Dr. Nick Oswald, PhD bioscientist and founder Bitesize Bio.

Nick Oswald (00:39):
Hello and welcome to The Happy Scientist podcast from Bitesize Bio. If you want to become a happier, healthier, and more productive scientist, you are in the right place. I am Nick Oswald, the founder of And with me is the driving force of this podcast, Mr. Kenneth Vogt, in these sessions, we’ll hear mostly from Ken on principles that will help shape you for a happier and more successful career. And along the way, I’ll pitch in with points from my personal experience as a scientist, and from working with Ken today, we are discussing how to Hotwire your to-do list for maximum progress. Okay. Ken, tell us all about it.

Kenneth Vogt (01:18):
All right. So today we’re gonna talk about a matrix, a matrix that only has two factors. That is things that are urgent and things that are important. And to, so you could picture this where important is on the Y axis and urgent is on the X axis and it ends up creating four quadrants. So either some, you know, something is either urgent or it’s not, and it’s either important or it’s not. So you can have four combinations of that. You can have something that is urgent and important. You can have something that is important, but not urgent. You can have something that is urgent, but not important. And finally, you can have something that is neither urgent nor important. And the fact is, if you look at your to-do list for any given day, you’re probably gonna see all four of those quadrants represented and so you gotta figure out, well, how do I, how do I prioritize what I’m gonna do any given day, any given week, any given month and you can use this matrix to decide what should show up where, and you can also use it to decide whether or not something should even stay on the list.

Kenneth Vogt (02:48):
And, and there’s lots of ways to, to deal with you to-do list. Some of it comes down to, you know, managing your own time, but some of it comes down to, to well, maybe it’s tests that I personally shouldn’t do, but I should delegate, or I should ask for help with. And when I say delegate, I mean, that can be to, to a subordinate, but it, you can delegate up too. You can delegate something to your boss if it’s appropriate or, or it can be a lateral move to, to a colleague, you know, so that there’s, there’s lots of ways to look at that stuff. But it, it may shake out a little different than you imagine. Because when you, at first blush, you might think urgent and important. Well, if something’s urgent, it must be important. No, no, not at all.

Kenneth Vogt (03:40):
You know, a three year old tugging at your pan leg is urgent, but is it important? Almost certainly not. You know so you have to, you have to look at things and see them clearly for what they are. So to do that, the first thing we probably need to do is to define what is urgent and what is important. So when something is urgent, the way you’ll know it’s because first off it, it requires immediate attention. It is screaming for something to be done right now. And it generally involves short-term thinking. And as a result, it involves suboptimal decision making, cause it’s just, it’s demanding is, is what’s going on. It’s generally less significant compared to long-term goals because it’s just about right now and things that are happening right now can, can go away very, very quickly and vaporized in, in value very quickly.

Kenneth Vogt (04:48):
And finally, if it’s urgent, it’s time sensitive and the time duration is usually short, that is it’s, you know, you have to do it in the next 20 minutes. You have to do it today. It has to be done this week. You know, whatever is whatever you’re considering is short term for this particular task or, or, or item. So these are the things that describe something that’s urgent. Well, how does that differ from something that’s important? Okay. Well, something that’s important requires initiative and it requires proactiveness. So it, it goes a little more in depth. It’s not, it’s not that it’s screaming for attention right now, but it is, but it’s, it’s gonna require quality attention, something that’s important, involves dedicated, focused time to do quality work, some urgent things that you do, you can do practically on autopilot. You know, when you, when you change lanes, you automatically just put on your turn signal.

Kenneth Vogt (05:57):
You don’t even think about it. Well, at least some of you do. You know, there are a lot of activities like that, where if it’s important, you have to think about it. You gotta get engaged with it. You can’t have something else going on at the same time, that’s drawing your attention away. It needs your full focus important things. They engage long term strategic thinking. So it’s not just about the moment. And when I say strategic thinking, I mean, it might not be just a knee jerk reaction. You, you may have to coordinate it with other things. It, it, it may require a, a change in focus. And, and again, this is, this is about what it makes to make something important. And finally, if it’s important, it’ll have a large impact on success. And when I talk about success, I’m talking about long-term success.

Kenneth Vogt (06:57):
I’m talking about success of the project, success of your career. You know, it’s stuff, that’s a big deal that that will ultimately matter to a large extent whether or not you succeed. So those are, those are the differences between something that’s urgent and important. Now you probably noticed in that conversation that these things aren’t mutually exclusive, it isn’t that it’s either urgent or important things can be both or it can be just one of them or it can be more of one of them. So when I, when I say we divide this into quadrants, that is not to say that there aren’t continuums on both the X axis and the Y axis. There are some things are vitally important and other things are kind of important. Some things are, are screaming, urgency, and others are just, naggingly urgent. You know? So you still gotta, you still gotta factor it in and to where things land for you, but we’re gonna break it down into these four quadrants.

Kenneth Vogt (08:05):
Not because they are the end all and be all truth of the matter, but because they’re practical and it’ll help you get a, get an idea of what to do with these things that are on your list. So I’m, I’m gonna, I’m gonna go through these quadrants in a certain order and I’m doing it on, on purpose this way. Cause you’ll see how just because something is landing in a certain quadrant doesn’t mean it needs to stay there. And in fact it might be valuable to move it into a different quadrant by choice. So it does come down to, to how you assess things. You know, again with that, that three year old tugging on your pants leg, it’s urgent to the three year old, but it might not be urgent to you. And we’ve all seen, we’ve all seen this with a, with a mother.

Kenneth Vogt (08:51):
That’s got a little kid at her knee and, and the kid’s really screaming attention. And the mother doesn’t seem to even notice because it’s urgent to the child, but it’s not urgent to the, to the mother. So you do get to, you get to have your own views about these things. And, but it is noteworthy that other people might view it different. So you may have people that are insisting that something is important because it’s urgent to them. Or you might have people that are insisting that something is important, that, that you believe is not important. It means you’re gonna have to communicate perhaps with others about these things and get on the same page. But it it will impact where you choose what quadrant you choose to put it in. Now, if your boss is insisting, something is important and you cannot sway them otherwise. Well, you’re probably gonna need to treat it as important even if you don’t agree. So, you know, just something you think about there.

Kenneth Vogt (09:53):
So the category that would seem to, to demand the most attention, the, the quadrant would be what we’ll call quadrant one, which is something that is both important and urgent. And it would seem like, well, yeah, that my whole to-do list every day, that should be what’s on it. Things that are important and urgent, but consider this. If things are important and urgent, I’m gonna suggest that you should reduce the number of things that are there. And I’m gonna suggest you reduce them for a couple of reasons. One is because that leads for a really, really stressful day. Now, if you’re an emergency room, doctor stress a stressful day is normal, but chances are in the lab. That’s not exactly how you want it to be. And if things are falling in this quadrant, it’s because they’re in crisis and you’ll find yourself in crisis management all the time, because things are urgent and important.

Kenneth Vogt (10:54):
What you wanna do is you wanna try and move those items into, into quadrant two, which is the quadrant where things are important, but not urgent. So what’s the difference, same tasks. Why would something be important and urgent? And why might it be important but not urgent? Well, the only difference is timing. Did you get in front of things? Did you deal with it before it got urgent? Because in many cases, the fact that something is urgent isn’t because an emergency popped up it’s because you failed to deal with it. Before this, you could have dealt with this thing. That’s still important. It hasn’t changed in importance, but you could have dealt with it before it got urgent. And if you had done that, things would be less stressful. Now the beauty of dealing with that are when they’re important, but not urgent is because you can be more strategic about it.

Kenneth Vogt (11:59):
You can plan, you know but to do that, you, it, it requires initiative. You gotta, you gotta make things happen before urgency puts a gun to your head. You know, it’s, it’s a matter of, it’s a matter of demand. You know, if you only do things when you’re pressured to, when you’re forced to, you are introducing a lot of stress into your, into your own schedule. So you can get around that by dealing with things sooner. Now at the beginning, that’s, that’s gonna take a little bit of commitment because if you’re sitting there with a to-do list or most things are important and urgent, you get all that pressure there. And now I’m supposed to do things that are important and not urgent. Now I’m gonna add that to my list. I’m like, well, you got there because you didn’t add that to the list before.

Kenneth Vogt (12:52):
So yes, at the beginning, you’re gonna have to knuckle under a little and you’re gonna have to get ahead of the curve. And don’t don’t kid yourself that that’s not possible. Cause I mean, it seems like, oh, it just impossible. There’s no way I can do everything. Well, you know what? You still have the things that are important and urgent on your list and, and you manage to do those. So start realizing you’ve made it important and urgent to move things to the quadrant. That is important, but not urgent. So it’s the, it’s the same pressure nothing’s changed. But if you start to, if you start to make the moves and you get something out there, it gets easier. Your, your, your quadrant one work will lessen. And then if it gets something else out there, it gets easier again. So you’ll find a lot less stress in your normal schedule and you’ll find you’re getting important things done. And, and that feels good. You know, when something is important and urgent, guess it, of course, it feels good to get it done, but it feels more mature to do things that are important and not urgent. You’re gonna feel more capable, more responsible. And that is a very, very good feeling. If you’re not accustomed to having that feeling, you’ve, you’re, you’re missing out, get in the zone where you feel like you’re ahead of the curve and you’re gonna feel so much better.

Kenneth Vogt (14:29):
So now, now let’s talk about things that are not important. Should you never do things that are not important? Well, that’s not exactly true, cause sometimes things are urgent and not important. What you can do with those things though is go, okay, this does need to be done. It’s it’s, it’s calling for attention, but is it the best use of my time? Well, if it’s not important and I’m saying not important for you to do well, then see if you can get it done by somebody else. And it might, it might just be a matter of asking for help. And I know for a lot of folks, that’s a hard thing to do. I don’t like to ask for help, but understand. This is about getting the most strategic benefit whether that’s for your personal career or for the project that you’re working on or for the lab that you’re in.

Kenneth Vogt (15:22):
You know, the group that you have, all of them can benefit by this. You, if you are spending time doing things that are urgent, but not important, it will take away from the things in quadrant one and quadrant two, which are important and urgent and important and not urgent. In other words, you won’t do as much important stuff and you should. And sometimes you just, it isn’t so much asking your boss to do it for you, but asking your boss to take it off of you. You, they, they may well assign it to somebody else and it might make more sense cause it might actually be important for somebody else. Now, if it’s important for them, well then they’re gonna need to take it on. Now, there are times when, when you’re gonna get assigned to things that for you are urgent but not important, but they are important for other people and being aware that it’s important for someone else is useful.

Kenneth Vogt (16:21):
And you know, then you can make a decision about that. You can make a choice. Well, even though this isn’t that important to me, it is important to my colleague, to my boss, even to my subordinate, you know? And if it’s gonna make someone else’s life easier and it’s gonna, it is gonna advance them in some fashion that may well be worth, worth the cost of doing it. It’s just, don’t spend all your time there doing things that are urgent, but not important for you or you’re just not gonna get anywhere. And delegation is probably your, your best answer to getting out of having a lot of those tasks. Now we’re all gonna have those, you know, it’s, it’s, stuff’s gonna pop up and somebody else is gonna be in a panic again to have something. And you know, you’re gonna, you’re gonna take one for the team.

Kenneth Vogt (17:14):
You’re gonna do something to benefit the other person because you know that that’s a, a favor that may well be returned one day and it’s worthwhile. You’re gonna do something. That’ll make your boss look good. It’s great. You know, there, there’s nothing wrong with doing those things that some people would consider politics but you know, keep, keep in mind that the word politics has the same root word as the word policy. So if it’s your policy to be helpful to other people, to, to be useful to your boss, that’s, that’s beneficial to you. So it can kind of move something into the, into the realm of being important. All right. So the fourth quadrant is the quadrant where things are neither important, nor urgent. If you have something on your list that is not important and not urgent, you need to be asking yourself, why is this still on my to-do list?

Kenneth Vogt (18:18):
You gotta declutter that. And by the way, there, there is probably an answer to that. Why question? And the answer often is because it’s easy, cause it’s familiar and sometimes it just, you need to, I just need a simple task where I can check the box and feel like I accomplished something that is not great motivation. When you can check the box that you’ve done something important, it is so much better than just checking the box cause you did something. So yeah, you, you really wanna declutter your to-do list of those kind of things. Get rid of them. If they’re not supporting the, the mission in the goals of, of your lab. If they’re not advancing your career, if they’re not helping your group, if they’re not aiding the project just, you gotta get rid of them you gotta speak up and sometimes you have those things cause they’ve been assigned to you.

Kenneth Vogt (19:22):
Well, if something like that has been assigned to you, you have got to speak up for yourself. You gotta say, Hey, why am I doing this? You know, you want me to do X, but we have so and so to do X and I, it doesn’t need to be me. Or we shouldn’t be doing X at all ever. No. And even so and so shouldn’t be doing X cuz it’s a waste of time or it’s a waste of resources or we could be using them in a better fashion or in, in your own case, you know, my time would be better spent if I were doing this instead of that, you know? So you can make the case to yourself obviously, but you can also make the case to, to a boss or to a project lead or a PI or whoever, you know, whoever is that is advancing something.

Kenneth Vogt (20:09):
And, and a lot of this comes down to just getting clarity about what’s the strategy and what’s the objective here and getting everybody on the same page communication is gonna matter when it comes to these quadrants, because at some point you may argue that something’s not important and someone will argue back that it is important and they’re they’ll make the case. Well now then you’ll have to change how you look at it. Sometimes people will argue about urgency cause they’re just high strung and everything looks urgent to them. Well maybe you can calm them down on that. Or maybe you’re the highest strung one, maybe you’re calling too many things urgent that aren’t actually urgent. So it is important that you’re that the assessment you make of the importance of something and the assessment you make of the urgency of something is accurate and that’s up to you.

Kenneth Vogt (21:05):
So, so these are the four quadrants. If you find you can get more stuff into quadrant two where things are important and not urgent, you’re gonna have a much better career. You’re gonna have a much better year, a much better week, a much better day if you can live there, there’s nothing wrong with urgent and important that that happens. It’s just a little more stressful and it’s okay to have some things that are urgent, but not important. If it’s advancing something valuable to yourself or somebody who’s important to you and it’s never okay to be doing things that are neither important, nor urgent, there are a waste of your time. You are, you are pretending you’re being productive. If you do stuff like that and try to pat yourself on a back forward. So, you know, save yourself from that and save yourself from, from telling others that you’re accomplishing things by doing things that are neither important or urgent because you know what they’ll notice they will realize all you do is busy work. You’re not actually doing anything. That’s advancing the, the mission of the operation of the project of the lab or, or whatever group you’re in. So, so that’s the, that’s the rundown on how to hot wire, your to-do lists for maximum progress. So what do you think Nick?

Nick Oswald (22:28):
So plug it into quadrant two. That’s what to do. Your, your your to-do list. That’s quite interesting. So if you look at it from what you’re doing in the lab on a day to day basis, then the things that are important are the things that move your research forward. Obviously. so anything that’s not important is things that doesn’t, you know, doesn’t move your research forward. It’s stuff that you know is either expendable or, you know, it, it doesn’t, you know, doesn’t necessarily contribute to the main thing of, of getting more results, figuring out what they mean, publishing, getting funding, all that stuff. Um so it’s basically, you’re, you’re looking at, it’s quite funny that, that this aligns with the quite well with that, the Pareto principle, you know, the, you, most of the most of the benefit comes from 20% of the work you do. And and so try and do more of that 20%, which is basically about do

Kenneth Vogt (23:36):
The, says that you get 80% of the value from 20% of the work

Nick Oswald (23:40):
From 20% of the work. Yeah.

Kenneth Vogt (23:41):
Yeah. Although present current research says it’s actually a way more than that. So, so in other words, you might get and what

Nick Oswald (23:52):
We, don’t

Kenneth Vogt (23:52):
90% of the benefit from 10% of the task, or you might get 95% of the business from 5% of the task, you know, that that’s so, I mean, it’s really powerful.

Nick Oswald (24:05):
And so the, so, so the one way to look at that is that most of the stuff you’re doing is not in quadrant two

Kenneth Vogt (24:13):
Right. You know, most probably not

Nick Oswald (24:14):
Most of the stuff that people do that people do is not in quadrant two and well, I mean, that’s also gonna be about execution as well in quadrant to, you know, if you’re looking at experiments and so on.

Kenneth Vogt (24:25):
Well, but, but it goes

Nick Oswald (24:26):
To show. That’s quite interesting

Kenneth Vogt (24:28):
If you’re spending your time a lot of your time in quadrant one, well, you can get far more productive by moving things to quadrant two. If you’re spending a lot of your time in quadrant three, you’re probably not getting anything much done. And if you’re spending time with quadrant four, you are, you are a waste of oxygen, you know, so, you know, you gotta look at that’s where you are, but you can see the, if you move from quadrant four to quadrant three, you still moved up. You know, if you go from three to one, you moved up, but you know, one to two is the best

Nick Oswald (25:02):
Probably, probably should it not be quadrant one and quadrant two swapped in terms of-

Kenneth Vogt (25:09):
I, I thought about that as I saying it, but it’s like, this is, this is kind of an established thing, so sure,

Nick Oswald (25:17):
Sure. Yeah, we break we’ll but again, you want to get into quadrant too. So you want to be spending most of your time doing, you know calmly planning, experiments, not rushing them, calmly setting them up, calmly doing them, calmly processing the results or, or noting the results, making notes, you know, how

Kenneth Vogt (25:40):
For designing experiments or even choosing experiments, whether you should or should not do a particular experiment.

Nick Oswald (25:48):
Well, yeah, but one thing you don’t wanna do is, you know, you don’t wanna do an unimportant experiment. One that doesn’t move things forward, but you also don’t want do an important experiment and rush and rush it. Cause then what’s the point that then you’re much less likely to have a, a success. Yeah.

Kenneth Vogt (26:04):
Urgency introduces problems. So if you’re, if you’re experiencing urgency, it’s kind of a warning signal it’s and it doesn’t mean it’s a disaster, but it, but it still puts things at risk.

Nick Oswald (26:18):
Yeah. And, and I say that as in a person who lives in quadrant one , and it’s not a good thing, as you know, it’s, it’s a, it’s, it’s an addiction and you know, you guys,

Kenneth Vogt (26:31):
He hard on him

Nick Oswald (26:33):

Kenneth Vogt (26:33):
Yeah. And himself folks, he, he, he has lived in quadron one he’s doing better. ,

Nick Oswald (26:39):
I’m a bit better, but I tend to be attracted like a Mo to quadrant one

Kenneth Vogt (26:44):
Well, yeah. Urgency scripts for attention, you know, it’s, it’s just how it is.

Nick Oswald (26:50):
Yeah. But again, if you’re in that, that, that quadrant one where you’re rushing everything or you’re you know, there’s no, I mean, the other, this, this feeds into so many topics, like you know, taking time to sit back and just look at what you’re doing or, or not, not do anything or important and not urgent is rest time. You know, and is contemplation time and is planning time and is slow set up time and is discussing time, you know, you know, it’s, it’s, it’s all in there and accordance one to 4, 1, 1, 3, and four will eat the, all of that and put in, in the, in that either unproductive when you’re at the bottom of that list or, or coordinate three and four or stressed out and making mistakes in couldn’t one, you know? So,

Kenneth Vogt (27:44):
And by the way,

Nick Oswald (27:44):

Kenneth Vogt (27:45):
Interesting, you’re hearing this by audio and you’re thinking I can’t keep it straight, it’ll be in the show notes. So it’s all laid out and written in a simple format.

Nick Oswald (27:54):

Kenneth Vogt (27:54):
You may find that that quadrant two doesn’t, it doesn’t arise organically. You, you, you pretty much have to make quadrant two, a reality quadrant. One will arise by itself. Quadrant three will arise by itself and quadrant four will arise by itself. But number two, you gotta make it happen. But if you bother to make it happen, your everything gets gets better. You get more clarity, you accomplish more, you will expend less energy for the, for the valuable output you get. So it it’s worth it’s worth making the commitment to it.

Nick Oswald (28:35):
So that, so that is the take home message is to stay focused on creating space for important tasks to be tackled in a non-urgent way.

Kenneth Vogt (28:48):

Nick Oswald (28:51):
Great. I’m writing it usual as usual. Okay. Thank you, Ken for that. So, as Ken said, the show notes for for the show will show that the quad will give you a quadrant diagram that you can use to refer to, but you can use to refer. Maybe you want to go back and listen to what Ken said there. You can find the show notes at and go to episode 54 and it will be on that page. And the other thing to say is that we have a Facebook page over there can find us who come with us, ask us questions and tell us how, how you’re doing in the, in the four quadrants and adhering to the four quadrants. So we’d love to see you over there. So it just leaves me to say, thank you, Ken, for another great episode and good luck to everyone in hot wiring, their to-do list.

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