If you often find yourself firefighting through your to do list, managing crises and barely staying afloat, then this article is for you.
Among the time management tools and concepts available to us, the urgent-important matrix is one of the most helpful.
This concept was popularized by Stephen Covey in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, but it was actually used by U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower long before Covey made it famous. That’s why this method is also often referred to as the Eisenhower Matrix.
“What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.” ~ Dwight D. Eisenhower
We know that Eisenhower often assessed urgency and importance before making decisions. He also often delegated as many of his tasks as he could.
The urgent-important matrix is a great tool to prioritize your tasks visually on their scale of urgency and importance.
At the heart of the urgent-important matrix are these two questions:
- Is this task important?
- Is this task urgent?
By asking yourself these questions, you can begin placing your tasks in each quadrant of the matrix.
So just what does each quadrant stand for?
Quadrant 1: Urgent/Important
This quadrant is for the highest priority tasks. They need to get done now.
Try to keep as few tasks as possible here, with the aim to eliminate. If you spend too much of your time in this quadrant, you are working solely as a trouble shooter, and never finding time to work on longer-term plans.
If two or more tasks in this quadrant appear to be equally urgent, you might want to re-asses these tasks with the team members who originated the tasks, or who depend on them. This will help you reprioritize these tasks accordingly.
Also, if you’re met with unplanned demands from others that fall into the urgent/important category, you might want to acknowledge the task and respond with a commitment to complete it a later date. This way, you’ll be able to resume with your planned tasks, while managing their expectations.
Quadrant 2: Not Urgent/Important
This is where you want to spend most of your time. This quadrant allows you to work on something important and have the time to do it properly. This will help you produce high quality work in an efficient manner.
The tasks in this quadrant are probably the most neglected ones, but also the most crucial ones for success. You need to plan time for these activities, so that the tasks from quadrant 1 and 3 don’t take over your whole schedule. If necessary, also plan where you will do these tasks, so that you’re free from interruptions.
The tasks in this quadrant can include strategic thinking, deciding on goals or general direction and planning - all vital parts of running a successful business.
Quadrant 3: Urgent/Not Important Quadrant
You also want to minimize the tasks that you have in this quadrant. This is where you are busy but not productive. These tasks are often mistaken to be important, when they’re most often busywork.
These tasks are usually demands originated by team members. You need to scrutinize and question them, and then help those who made the demands re-assess the importance of these tasks.
It’s important to make a decision about these tasks as soon as you’re confronted with them. If you can avoid these tasks as they are assigned to you, do it! This way, you’ll be able to manage people’s expectations. But don’t just shut down the person who came to you with the task; help them find another way of achieving what they need, whether it involves delegation to another person or taking a more strategic approach to the task.
This quadrant may also include tasks that exist simply because “we’ve always done it this way.” You want to identify, question and challenge these. The way it’s always been done doesn’t cut it if there isn’t a real purpose behind why things are done the way they are.
Quadrant 4: Not Urgent/Not Important Quadrant
You want to minimize the tasks in this quadrant. This is where we go to escape after spending too much time in quadrants 1 and 3. But this may cause quadrant 2 activities to get postponed until they become urgent and move to quadrant 1 - when it becomes too late to get them done effectively.
In fact, this quadrant doesn’t really include tasks, but rather habits that provide comfort, and a refuge from being disciplined and rigorous with your time management. They may often be stress-related activities, so you might want to take some time to understand if there’s a root cause for these habits.
To reduce these activities and remove the temptation to go back to them, it helps to create a clear structure for your day by focusing on the tasks in quadrant 2.
Don’t get me wrong - leisure activities should definitely be part of your daily schedule! They just need to be deliberately scheduled.
So how can the urgent-important matrix help you improve your time management skills?
The urgent-important matrix is a great technique for prioritizing your tasks. It allows you to deal with the truly important and work toward your goals. It allows you to plan properly and execute those plans effectively.
It also allows you to challenge activities that are a waste of time and effort - for example habitual tasks, or tasks that were handed down from above (think pointless reports and so on). Just because that’s the way things have been done for a long time doesn’t mean it’s still appropriate or there isn’t a better way. The urgent-important matrix allows you to objectively judge your time management and adjust it accordingly.
Will your time management always be a piece of cake if you employe this method? Probably not! Time management is something that you constantly need to work on, and sometimes a myriad demands can overwhelm even the best of us.
But a tool like the urgent-important matrix can help you develop your time management skills. It allows you to regain control over your environment and the demands of others, rather than allow your environment to control you.
If you’ve found this post useful, you might also want to take a look at how Sandglaz combines the urgent-important matrix and the Kanban board to maximize effective task management.