Is That Task Important or Merely Urgent?

I wrestle with this question everyday, if not several times a day. Most of the things pinging our brain for attention our merely urgent but often trivial.

In this brief, two-minute video clip, Behance founder and CEO Scott Belsky discusses how today often trumps tomorrow and what happens when it does. He then discusses how to distinguish between the urgent and the important.

Another great resource is Stephen Covey’s book, First Things First. In Chapter 3, “The Urgency Addiction,” he provides a framework for deciding whether or not a task is urgent, important or some combination thereof. Think of it as a 2 x 2 matrix:

Covey time management matrix 001 001

We should prioritize our daily task list by determining which quadrant it is in. For example,

  1. Quadrant 1: Important and Urgent. These tasks should be our first priority. They go at the top of your to-do list. They are important, and they must be done today.
  2. Quadrant 2: Important But Not Urgent. These are the “tomorrow” tasks that Scott speaks about. They should be our second priority, because if we don’t do them, we will face the consequences in the future.
  3. Quadrant 3: Urgent But Not Important. These are those tasks that are urgent to someone else, but they are not important to us. They should be our third priority. Frankly, much of the email we receive and social media falls into this quadrant.
  4. Quadrant 4: Not Urgent and Not Important. These should simply be deleted from our daily task list. They are simply a distraction that keeps us from accomplishing those items in the first two quadrants.

Years ago, I used to actually plan my day using Covey’s matrix. I no longer do that, but it has become second nature to me.

Update: One of my readers pointed me to the Priority Matrix for iPhone. It is a 99¢ app, which replicates Covey’s model. I’d love to see something like this as a web app or software app.

Question: How do you prioritize your daily task list? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
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  • Uma Maheswaran S

    I create a to-do list and start planning from there. As always, the to-dos exceeds the available time. Hence I break the task into two different categories – mandatory and optional. I start with the mandatory activities to be completed (primarily relating to my official assignments) and finally pursue my optional activities (which normally relates to my hobbies, socializing, pursuing personal interests, etc). Within each category, I strategize my order of performance based on the ‘value’ I derive from the same.

  • Timothy Fish

    It’s easy to talk about this stuff when we aren’t looking at real tasks, but in real life I think there is a lot of overlap between category one and category three. The fact that someone else sees a task as important and they need it today can create a situation in which it is both urgent and important, even though we don’t see it as important. For that reason alone, I think we have to move those tasks to the second priority. But at the same time, just because a task concerns the future rather than now, it doesn’t mean it may not be urgent that we get to work on it now.

  • Kerry Palmer

    I use an A, B, C, D (delegate) system of organizing my task list that is very similar to Covey’s matrix. The A items are “today” items, and can usually only be done by me. Everything else can be moved to another day, although B items usually can’t be delayed for very long. D items simply get delegated, and I set in place a system for follow-up by me.

    Giving oneself permission to complete a task item by re-assigning the due date is very liberating. I like to end the day with the inbox empty, and the task list clear (at least for that day). Just knowing that each task has an assigned due date helps to clear the clutter from my mind.

    • Michael Hyatt

      I have used that system, too. I think I first learned it from the Franklin system.

    • John Richardson

      Years ago I tried the Franklin system, but I found that I was spending too much time planning my actions rather than doing them. I could easily spend a half hour marking things up with a letter. Once I read Getting Things Done by David Allen, I started focusing more on next actions than priority. It works a lot better for me. I always had a difficult time trying to figure out what was more important when comparing two dissimilar projects. I’ve talked with others that swear by the letters, so it’s probably personal preference.

      • Ben Tune

        I feel the same way, John. I could really get bogged down trying to assign a letter. When I scan my task list, I’m usually deciding what is next. Or, maybe the next three or four things.

    • Joe Lalonde

      The A, B, C, D(delegate) system sounds like it could work well.

  • Patricia Zell

    I guess I’m fortunate because, as a teacher, I don’t have too many deadlines to meet and I do have flexibility. The deadlines that I do have keep me on task to complete the necessary tasks of lesson plans and grades. My challenge is not deciding what is urgent or not urgent–it’s keeping everything organized. I’m involved with several committees and teams, so I have lots of paperwork. Add to that the work I have to grade and the papers I’m going to use with my classes (I like to copy a week’s worth of assignments at a time), and I am swimming in paper.

  • Todd

    Long ago after reading David Allen’s GTD System, I figured out that spending time each morning (or on a Sunday night in prep for the week ahead) trying to prioritize a daily list wouldn’t work for me. Invariably a phone call or email from a client or my boss would cause me to reshuffle the importance of my tasks more than once a day – a similar situation to what Timothy posted below, and I was spending too much time re-thinking is this a A1 or A2 or a B1 or… Eventually I realized I could be intuitive about what really needed to get done that day or that week as long as I put the time into writing everything down on paper beforehand. That way even the unexpected ‘fires’ that show up everyday can be handled and I can get back to doing my important work fairly quickly because the items are in one place that I can keep with me all the time. I don’t have to worry about whether or not I have thought about everything that needs to get done.

  • Larry Yarborough, Jr.

    Amen to this. It’s being repeated by writers and creatives much these days with good reason.

    I have to preach three unique messages five times a week at our church. Frequently funerals will come my way along with opportunities to speak on behalf of our church at local community events.

    If I do not spend the first 3-4 hours of every work day in study, I’m toast. And … it the temptations to *do* other things, because studying does not feel like working/producing, is phenomenally overwhelming.

  • ET @ Titus2:3-5

    I love the suggestion he shared, of not even opening the email program until a certain time of day!

    I need to write in the early mornings. Something happens in my brain that “blocks” my creative abilities after noon. Yet I allow myself to take “just a quick peek” at my email some days before I begin writing. BIG MISTAKE!

    I am going to implement that idea next week and see if I am more efficient.

    Thanks, Michael. I’ve been reading here for just over a week, and every post has been incredibly helpful. (And just in case anyone tried to say social networking doesn’t work, I first clicked because of a link someone else shared on Twitter.) :)

    • Alex Humphrey

      I love that too! How smart to have “offline” time to really focus!

    • Michael Hyatt

      I love social networking. I’m so glad you stopped by!

  • Alex Humphrey

    I love Steven’s matrix. I am just about to read “7 Habits Of Highly Effective People” and this is one of the areas I hope to incorporate into my life immidiately.

    The hardest part for me is deciphering between urgent and important. There are several areas of my life and blog that I focus on because they feel important; but really they are only urgent (some aren’t urgent OR important, just easier than other stuff).

    Does “7 Habits” talk more in depth about the difference or are there other resources you would recommend for getting started on this system?

    • Michael Hyatt

      Seven Habits is great. But read First Things First, too. The way I distinguish between the two is that important tasks are those that are related to my written goals and values.

      • Alex Humphrey

        I like that.

        Thank you!

  • Karl Mealor

    I have hijacked an idea from Leo Babauta. He suggested at one point listed three MIT’s (most important things) for each day….things that absolutely must be done regardless. Those three things receive the highest priority and focus for that day. I don’t always list three things; sometimes it’s one; hopefully never more than five. It helps me to clarify my priorities.

    One thing I do struggle with is the urgent/not important box.

    • Michael Hyatt

      That is a really great suggestion. I always try to do these MIT first—actually, before I leave for the office.

  • Steve Barkley

    On one hand I love the Franklin Covey system because it integrates both personal and business goals, (life plan) breaking them down from general to detail actions. But honestly, I struggle with the self discipline to stay up with it, and find that I will go weeks without even looking at it. During these periods I am getting things done, but I don’t have the feeling of being in control of my life, or more importantly, living my life intentionally, or with purpose. More than checking items off a list, that is what I gain most from effective personal management. So thanks for the inspiration to use this tool more effectively.

    • Joe Lalonde

      Steve, I can feel you on that one. I struggle with self-discipline when it comes to goals and plans.

    • Jeff Randleman

      It sounds like you are describing my life. I’m still looking fo a system that I can use effectively.

  • Leah Adams

    I am the list queen. I make a list, either on paper or in my head, and decide from that what is urgent and important and try to do that first. My OCD personality enjoys checking off the tasts I accomplish. Sometimes the ‘tyranny of the urgent’ wins and that is when I end up frustrated and not accomplishing the really important things. I love seeing the matrix on this post. I may copy and paste that and post it in my office as a reminder.

  • Robin Dance

    While I listened, Hummel’s 1967 essay, “The Tyranny of the Urgent” was in my periphery, reminding me THIS is not a new problem, but in our world perhaps compounded. Like addiction, the first step to me is realizing there’s an issue to deal with….

    • Michael Hyatt

      I read a booklet version of that when I was in college. It was hugely helpful. I think it shaped my thinking from the outset of my adult life.

    • Joe Lalonde

      Robin, I’ll have to read that essay. Thanks for mentioning it.

  • Merri Ellen

    I use an iPhone app called Priority Matrix. Love it’s simplicity and I can email a list out with the push of a button.

    • Michael Hyatt

      I’ll have to check that out. Thanks!

      • merri ellen g

        You are welcome! :)

  • Cyberquill

    My daily actions reside mostly within Quadrants 2 and 3 of the Covey matrix. I rarely venture into Quadrant 4, and I can’t think of anything that fits into Quadrant 1.

  • Boris Eichenberger

    It was Eisenhower who used this simple, yet powerful principle to order his tasks! Covey might just have learnd from him…

  • @kylereed

    I do not do a very good job of this at all.
    Partially because I get very distracted by all my task.
    I am working on doing a better job of turning off distractions but also mapping out my day.
    I think I am going to give the Covey stuff a shot and really try and prioritize my week then my day.

    For a long time I just did not see that stuff as important and to be honest felt like I did not have the time to sit down and write that all out. But I think it will save me time in the long run.

  • @jakemusselman

    As Michael said, I think this issue is always present for those who want to be productive. I have found that when I schedule/prioritize is just as important as how I do it. If I try to do it that day my perspective tends to be skewed toward the urgent.

    I try to complete my scheduling/prioritizing for tomorrow at the end of the day, for next week at the end of this week, etc. This usually provides a better perspective of what’s important and what’s urgent. For me, in the moment, it becomes harder to distinguish between the two (in the moment, the urgent really does look important.)

  • Dylan Dodson

    The email idea was a great one! Taking some time to focus yourself ables you to get more done than having more time while being all over the place.

  • Josh Hood

    I think multitasking is our nemesis. We devote 33% of our focus to three different things at once and end up doing all three poorly.

    It’s also easy to rabbit trail. You’re going to post a link on Twitter to a great resource about leadership… then you notice a tweet that grabs your attention and takes you to a blog….that has a link to a Facebook profile…where you notice a great recipe you’d like to try…etc.

    A leadership task can become a dinner recipe.

    • Steven Cribbs

      I have always been one to do better in focusing on one thing at a time. Do it well. Get it done. Move on.

      It’s interesting, though, the apparent emphasis that has been put on multi-tasking – not necessarily how do you keep up with a lot going on and accomplish much; but, how do you do many things at the same time. I have seen this emphasis in business culture and also in interviews where it is made apparent that multi-tasking in this sense is essential for the job.

      • Michael Hyatt

        I personally don’t believe in multi-tasking. Much of the recent research has shown that we can only do micro-slicing. In other words, we can only focus on one-thing at a time. We can keep shifting our focus, but this is an unproductive way to work. Better to focus on one task, get it done, and then move to the next. The key is to divide the projects into manageable tasks that can be completed quickly. David Allen refers to these as “next actions.”

        • Patlayton

          I have struggled recently with my weakening “ability” to multi-task.
          In fact, I think it’s my growing wisdom that is taking the lead.

    • John Richardson

      So true… would you like some Grey Poupon with that leadership tweet?

    • Joe Lalonde

      Josh, I agree that “multi-tasking” can become our nemesis. So many things don’t get the proper attention because we’ve decided to do multiple tasks at once.

      As for rabbit trailing when posting links to Twitter or Facebook or other similar sites, I found a great plug-in for Firefox. It allows you to share the link without ever going to the site you want to share it with. It’s called Shareaholic. It adds a nice little button on your browser’s toolbar. Just click on the button and it gives you the choice of what site to share it with.

    • Jeff Randleman

      I agree. And there are so many things that fall into the category of “distraction” for me.

  • Jason Larsen

    I often go over this matrix with college students, and it’s great! Whether they implement it or not (just like us all) is the real trick.

    One piece of advice that I’ve heard (sorry, I haven’t read Covey’s book yet) is that the ideal ‘square’ to be living out of is the top right, because we will already be living out of the top left. That’s at least where I need to focus – is on the not urgent, but important things.

  • Craig

    One thing i learned from using the analytics from Xoni, is that for every email i send out i would get 1.5 replies (multiple recipients). so, i rethink who really needs to be on an email or a CC.
    I open email a few hours after I get in, but I also created a rule that allows me to (with the touch of the spacebar) delay the email being sent by an hour or two. that allows me to not get in that rut of firing email back and forth in real time.

    • Michael Hyatt

      I think you meant Xobni, correct?

  • John Richardson

    Great topic, Michael. One of the most life changing events of my life happened at a Toastmasters conference in 2004. That day I heard speaker Sarano Kelley talk about the power of today. His tenets: You can’t do things tomorrow and you can’t do them yesterday. You can only do them today, and you can only get started now.

    I put a short video together on my experiences that day and some of the things that have happened recently to sabotage them. It’s actually based on a post you did a while back. I think you might be able to relate…

    • Michael Hyatt

      Excellent, John. I liked the video. The black background is nice. It keeps the viewer focused on you and your message. Thanks for sharing.

      • John Richardson

        I’ve been trying to figure out the best way to do a “talking head” video without having an audience. It’s different than giving a speech, since you have no interaction. While I have a long ways to go to perfect this, I have been impressed with some of Nancy Duarte’s videos using a dark curtain background. It seems to add more focus. Now I need to work on lighting and scripting. I’ve learned a lot about video blogging from your site. I was impressed with your Skype interviews and product reviews. I’m headed out today to buy a carry on bag, and your Eagle Creek review really helped me know what features to look for. Thanks for providing great content!

        • Michael Hyatt

          Thanks, John. Tomorrow, I am launching a new e-book. Be sure to watch the video I include with it. It is very different from anything I have done before. Thanks.

    • TNeal

      Appreciate what you put out there, John. When you talked about your 4-year diet, you said, “I lost exactly…four years.” Powerful illustration that spoke to me.–Tom

    • Joe Lalonde

      John, thanks for the great video. The visuals were great and memorable!

      In the video, you said you picked up Sarano’s book. May I ask what the book was? I’d like to look into it.

    • Robert Ewoldt

      John, this is a great video. Thanks for sharing it.

  • Ron

    Sometimes I disagree with my boss on what is in matrix one, and if I disagree I am torn between loyalty to him and loyalty to self. I can allow myself to “serve” his needs and do as he requests, but motivation is not 100% as there is that niggling “I’d rather be doing … ” or “I should be doing”. Alternatively I can meet my needs but risk the wrath or repercussions with my boss. How do you marry the two?

    • Michael Hyatt

      When you work for someone else, they pretty much set the priorities.

  • Roger H

    Developing a technique for sorting out the immediate from the important is a freedom or opportunity that only management or ownership can enjoy. Most people have their tasks and priorities set by someone else, and deviating from those priorities is not viewed with favor. While the people accomplishing the task are often the first ones to recognize the lack of strategic vision, their input is seldom viewed as important when facing a deadline to ship product.

  • Brettvaden

    I am a full-time 4th grade teacher, so my work is with 16 10-year-olds for 7 hours each day. When I go to work, before I leave my car to go in the school, I briefly go over the distractions that might keep me from being present (in mind, soul, heart, and strength) for my students. And, I make a conscious decision to leave those things out. I actually say, “I’m going to leave out _______ so that I can be present with my students and fellow teachers.”

  • Anonymous

    I took the Strengthsfinder 2.0 test three years ago and it has made the most comprehensive difference as to what task I give myself to and in what order. If I’m not the best person to do something, it immediately puts that thing on the bottom of my “to do” list but on top of my “delegate” list.

  • TNeal

    Scott’s example of the person who spent the first 3 hours of work in research definitely runs contrary to the start of my day. It’s emails then writing. Reversing the order would improve my productivity. But those darn emails are so engaging…and distracting.

  • Mighty

    I like Covey’s matrix. It’s great. I’ve read David Allen’s Getting Things Done and made some tweaks with it so I can integrate Covey’s matrix. :)

  • Mark Newton

    Quadrant #2 – I track these with It’s a free web app which focuses on performance and accountability. I used the system for 7 years and just offered to others.

    • Michael Hyatt

      Awesome. I am check it out now. This might work well with my life planning methodology.

    • Robert Ewoldt

      Mark, thanks for the link; I’ll check it out to see if it’s something I could use.

    • TNeal

      If Robert hadn’t commented, I would have missed this link. It’s a good one and I’ve signed up for the program. Thanks.

  • Andrew

    I really need to get myself into a habit of using Covey’s matrix to prioritise tasks. There are just some days that I end up doing tasks that are in quadrants 3 and 4 when I really should be doing the tasks that are in quadrants 1 & 2, with an emphasis on quadrant 1.

  • Travis Dommert

    Six months ago I started using irunurun (a free web app) to get more focused and consistent with priorities.

    The underlying idea is that people will be more effective if they focus first on the handful of key actions that matter most each week…then fill in everything else as time allows. You allocate 100 points across just the key actions (up to 7 actions) and earn those points as you complete each action. You share your weekly score with other users. Suddenly, the only things that matter (i.e. the only actions that score me points) are the things that matter most.

    Over and above my normal reactive STUFF, I’ve made over 1000 sales calls, written a dozen articles, read 8 books, lost 6 pounds, spent more focused time with my kids, and started a daily Bible (that I am now confident will get read this year). I’ve done more of what matters in the last 6 months than I have in the last 6 years.

    Whether you use an app or a napkin, this approach works. The benefit to an app is the real-time accountability with others.

  • Cassandra Frear

    I have found considerable benefit in using this grid to sort through my responsibilities. It’s a good reminder to find it here.

  • Jim Whitaker

    Great article. One of my favorite Covey examples is where he brings someone up and gives them the sand, pebbles, and rocks and tells them to put it in a bucket and they seem to be leaving rocks out because they put the sand and pebbles in first. When you put the big rocks in first you get more of the important stuff done first and then you can get more sand and pebbles in latter. With proactive, I have been very proactive with being in level 2, that is not to say that level 1 does not come up, but I have been more effective. Unfortunately when an app like Angry Birds comes along I slip into quadrant 4. Had to delete that app real quick.

    • Michael Hyatt

      Yes, I blogged about this under the title “Put the Big Rocks in First.” I also embedded a video of Dr. Covey demonstrating this.

  • Ben Tune

    I work in technical support. One call can – and often does – change the plan for the day, so I’m constantly asking these questions and deciding between urgent and important things. I’m not allowed to ignore or delegate tasks, so sometimes I have to be creative with the way I manage my time. If you have a help desk in your office, you can probably learn a lot from observing how they prioritize and work through their tasks.

    • Robert Ewoldt

      Ben, I’m kind of in the same boat as you… I don’t have the ability to delegate a lot. I think the important thing is to spend wisely the whitespace that you DO have in your life. Do something significant with that time. Be faithful with the little time you have now, and God may give you more to be faithful with.

  • Joe Lalonde

    Some great questions brought up in this blogpost.

    I need to work on better prioritizing and organizing a daily to-do list.

    Right now though, I often try to ask myself if this task or that task is important. Or is taking this phone call going to be worth my time? For me, it’s been more of a mental task of asking myself “What is important”?

  • Anonymous

    I like the PM app, but this may be an instance where one may just need to find the right tool in their bag and stick with it. I use Evernote to serve the same function. I created four notebooks – Do These Tasks Now, Do These Tasks Tomorrow, Do These Tasks for Others, and Don’t Do These Tasks. I easily move notes/tasks from one notebook to the other, sync, and I have them at my fingertips regardless of my location.

    • Michael Hyatt

      You make a good point. You can spend a lot of time looking for tools. The key is not finding the right tool but doing the work!

      • Anonymous

        Completely agree! :)

  • Jeff Randleman

    To do list…. Sometimes I spend so much time fighting fires that I don’t seem to get anything worthy done. I’ve toyed with the GTD system, and some of Covey’s principles, but haven’t yet found a system that I can use efficiently. This videa was some great input, and I’d love any other suggestions to try.

    Thanks for another great post!

    • Michael Hyatt

      You might give Nozbe a try. My wife is loving it. (I use it, too.)

      • Jeff Randleman

        I’ll look it up. I’ve never heard of it before. Thnks!

  • Dan

    Great video and thoughts. This is an area I am trying to focus on more. Thank you for sharing.

  • Stephanie L. Jones

    Michael, I didn’t realize how bad I was until I started reading 7 Habits! Everything seemed URGENT! I was stressing myself out! So much so, that I would be replying to a text, taking a call on my office phone, and not really thinking about either one of them, because I would be thinking about something else I still needed to do. Today, I’m still a work in progress, but I’m much better. I don’t have my email set-up on my iPhone and I let many calls go to voicemail!

    When I returned home from vacation yesterday and opened my email, I just thought about FIRST THINGS FIRST: “The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.”

    Thank you for reminding me to take it easy!

  • Suvendu Sahoo

    It interesting how we all think alike. Here are the few links posted in last 7 days on this subject…

    Mar 22:
    Mar 19:
    Mar 17:
    Mar 15:

    I use MS Onenote -which allows me to tag a list of tasks on these four priorities,which I have customized.

    • Michael Hyatt

      Thanks for sharing these links!

  • Robert Ewoldt

    This reminds me of Donald Rumsfeld’s quote, “There are known knowns… But there are also unknown unknowns. These are things we don’t know we don’t know.” If we constantly spend time putting out the urgent but unimportant fires, we won’t get anything done. However, we also have to know how to identify tasks as important/urgent (discovering the unknown unknowns), so that we can be most effective.

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  • Matt Powell

    I’ve read this before but it was a great reminder to see again.  I feel like I have to constantly be reminded about good time management habits.  It is such a learned skill.

  • Natasha Golinsky

    I love this model and am going to use it with my clients. Thank you Michael!

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  • Ken Rosentrater

    I’ve used Covey’s Quadrant for over 10 years. It’s a very helpful tool.

    I use Priority Matrix on my iPad and on my MAC PRO desktop. I like them a great deal. They provide a robust flexibility for organizing tasks and projects.

    There are three issues that need improvement:1) The sync isn’t automatic. You have to do it manually. 2) The sync doesn’t use push technology. So, after syncing from the one device, you have to sync on the other device whenever you go to it, to be sure they match. You sync only to server, not to the device. (If Priority Matrix would follow Evernote’s lead in sync capabilities, it would be a “killer” application.)

    3) While you can add any number of lists and use them to organize tasks and projects using the Quadrant system, I have found that there gets to be too much information. The information is needed, but the more you retain, the more you are checking between different lists. I think the program needs a master daily list, where tasks from different lists can be compiled for each day. As it is, I have a work-around: an “Action List” into which I slide the items to which I want to give attention today from the various other lists. The quadrants here are named “A”, “B”, etc.

        That’s not a smooth process, and I find most of the time on the iPad I can’t move the tasks from one list to another. Plus, when it’s moved, then it’s not in the master list any more for that category!

    When Priority Matrix (made by Appfluence) fixes these 3 items, I’ll be recommending the program to people! 

    Overall, I like it, but it’s harder to use than it needs to be.

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  • Jo Rowe

    Knowing that I cannnot…just cannot leave whatever it is until tomorrow as tomorrow is another day and I might not be able to accomplish this very important and urgent task….which is what I must do now instead of responding to a number 4 task..!1

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  • thedougout24

    I’ve recently started using this matrix to prioritize my weekly activities through my outlook calendar.  Once an activity is inserted into the calendar, I use the category feature to color code my events.  A “red” category is “Steak Sauce” or “important/urgent” (as Dave Ramsey mentioned in his book Entreleadership)…a “green” category is “important, but not urgent”…and a “yellow” category is “urgent, but not important” (basically…the tasks that I would delegate to someone else). 

    Since I do not plan to do things that are not urgent and not important, I have left that quadrant off the list.  The only other category that I use is “for information only” which may not require delegation, but could be something that I need a reminder of as having taken place (i.e. a meeting of upper management…which I am currently not! :).

  • Daniel Vogler

    This is so true. As artist and writer my business grows by (surprise) writing and painting, but most days I find myself spending 80% of the time with administrative tasks. I try to prioritize my daily todo list but tend to totally overload it. Maybe I should get a virtual assistant… does anyone have experience with that?