Conquer your to-do list with TULIPS

FREE spreadsheet download with this article (.xlsx)

I was overwhelmed. There was a constant line of panicked faces at my desk, and if I’d had time to read all my emails, I’d get nothing else done. Even when I stayed up all night to try to get through all my tasks, my angry client could only see the missed deadlines. I seemed to spend every waking minute working, and I no longer knew who I was or what I wanted from life. I felt paralysed by constant failure and criticism. I had to escape from this endless stress, so I left the office and went to sit in a nearby café to think it through in peace.

I already knew from my reading of the Pareto Principle, that 80% of the things we do are worthless, and I’d seen the evidence many times. However, I wasn’t sure how I could identify the 20% in advance, or how to make the other 80% disappear.

Then I came across the magical Eisenhower Matrix. By defining my tasks in terms of Urgency (when they had to be done), and Importance (to my own life), I quickly saw that other people had been dumping their own “important” problems on me. And I’d been greedily – and self-destructively – devouring them. It was a jaw-dropping discovery that instantly lightened my mood. I left the café a different person, confident that I could use this technique to uncover my hidden priorities and slash my workload.

I experienced a spectacular turnaround in productivity in the first day. The non-urgent and not-important tasks were placed at the bottom of my list, and I was active only on the urgent and important tasks. I was saying “no” more often to tasks that were important only to somebody else.

Over the next few weeks, I refined the matrix further, experimenting with number values to grade the different levels of Urgency and Importance, and ways to generate a true Priority result for each of my tasks. I added “Time” to the mix, because it was clear that if a task was only going to take 5 minutes, it was better to get it done quickly and strike it off my list.

A few months later, I decided to add “Love” to the technique too. Always a good thing to do in any scenario, but in this case, I wanted to tweak my priority ratings a little towards the tasks that I enjoyed, or that would help me learn and develop, and I gave the technique a name – something that represented growth, beauty and nature. Something positive and stress-free. The name was TULIP. It stood for Time, Urgency, Love, Importance and Priority. Later still, I added S for Status, because I needed a simple way to pause a task and not forget where I was.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you TULIPS!

We get so caught up weeding the yard that we completely miss the tulips that nature gives us for a few precious weeks. We postpone joy.

Amit Sood, The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-Free Living

Here’s how to use it

Identify that you’re feeling stressed, indecisive and overwhelmed.

Find a quiet place: close your eyes, visualise a tulip, and take some deep breaths until you start to relax.

In your notebook, under a heading called “Actions”, make a full list of everything you need to do.

To the right of your list write the word TULIPS, with a little space between each letter.

The TULIPS method: what’s the most important thing to be doing right now? You might be surprised.

Under the T column, for each task, assign a value between 1 and 3 to represent the Time you think the task will take you.

1 means “8 hours or less”;
2 means “3 hours or less”;
3 means “an hour or less”.

Under the U column, assign a value between 1 and 3, to show the Urgency of the task.

1 means “It has to be done this month”;
2 means “It has to be done this week”;
3 means “It has to be done today”.

Under the L column, assign a value between 1 and 3 that denotes how much you Love this task.

1 means “I don’t like it”;
2 means “It’s OK”;
3 means “I love it”.

Under the I column, assign a value between 1 and 3 to show the Importance of this task to your long-term personal goals or objectives. Remember, a task isn’t important unless you say it is.

1 means “It won’t help me”;
2 means “It might help me a little”;
3 means “It will help me a lot”.

Multiply the 4 numbers together and put the result in the P column. This stands for Priority.

Find the highest number and put a circle in the S column to show you’re working on it. S stands for Status.

Do that task next and forget all others. If somebody asks you when you’re doing a different task for them, you can happily tell hem that their task is number x on your prioritised list.

When you’ve finished it, put a cross in the circle and move onto the next highest. If you’ve half-finished a task – for example, you’ve emailed someone and you’re waiting for them to get back to you – put a single line through the circle and move on to the others.

To show the technique in action (but expanded further to identify whether you should delete, delegate or do an individual task), I’ve created an app at Try it out.

Free spreadsheet download

I’ve also created an Excel version of TULIPS for you to use as a template (download the .xlsx file here). This can be useful if you have more things in your To-Do list than can be put onto a notebook page.

If you like the TULIPS technique, please share this post!

Paul Ford

Paul Ford is the host of the Start Your Sideline podcast, where he interviews some truly inspiring people about how they get amazing things done.

Add comment