The Urgent/Important Matrix

Using Time Effectively, Not Just Efficiently

It's urgent, but is it really important?

© iStockphoto

Your boss has asked you to prepare an important presentation for the next board meeting.

You only have a few days to put the presentation together, your workload is already high, and you have a number of other "urgent" tasks on your To-Do List. You're anxious, you can't concentrate, and everything seems to distract you.

Time stressors are the most pervasive source of pressure and stress in the workplace, and they happen as a result of having too much to do, in too little time. So, how can you beat this stress, and deliver the things that really matter to do a good job?

The Urgent/Important Matrix helps you think about your priorities, and determine which of your activities are important, and which are, essentially, distractions. In this article, we'll look at how you can use the Urgent/Important Matrix to manage your time effectively.

What Are "Urgent" and "Important" Activities?

Great time management means being effective as well as efficient. Managing time effectively, and achieving the things that you want to achieve, means spending your time on things that are important and not just urgent. To do this, and to minimize the stress of having too many tight deadlines, it's important to understand this distinction:

  • Important activities have an outcome that leads to the achievement of your goals, whether these are professional or personal.
  • Urgent activities demand immediate attention, and are often associated with the achievement of someone else's goals.

Urgent activities are often the ones we concentrate on; they demand attention because the consequences of not dealing with them are immediate.

Note:

The idea of measuring and combining these two competing elements in a matrix has been attributed to both former US President Eisenhower and Dr Stephen Covey.

Eisenhower's quote, "What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important," sums up the concept of the matrix perfectly. This so-called "Eisenhower Principle" is said to be how Eisenhower organized his tasks. As a result, the matrix is sometimes called the Eisenhower Matrix.

Covey brought the idea into the mainstream and gave it the name "The Urgent/Important Matrix" in his 1994 business classic The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

How to Use the Tool

The Urgent/Important Matrix is a powerful way of thinking about priorities. Using it helps you overcome the natural tendency to focus on urgent activities, so that you can keep clear enough time to focus on what's really important. This is the way you move from "firefighting" into a position where you can grow your business and your career.

Here's how it works:

The matrix can be drawn as shown in figure 1, with the dimensions of Importance and Urgency.

Figure 1 – The Urgent/Important Matrix

Follow the steps below to use the matrix to prioritize your activities:

  1. The first step is to list all the activities and projects that you feel you have to do. Try to include everything that takes up your time at work, however unimportant. (If you manage your time using a To-Do List   or Action Program  , you should have done this already.)
  2. Next, on a scale of 1 to 5, assign importance to each of the activities. Remember, this is a measure of how important the activity is in helping you meet your goals and objectives. Try not to worry about urgency at this stage.
  3. Once you've assigned an importance value to each activity, evaluate its urgency. As you do this, plot each item on the matrix according to the values that you've given it.
  4. Now study the matrix using the strategies described below to schedule your priorities.

Strategies for Different Quadrants of the Matrix

Urgent and Important

There are two distinct types of urgent and important activities: Ones that you could not foresee, and others that you've left to the last minute.

You can avoid last-minute activities by planning ahead and avoiding procrastination.

Issues and crises, on the other hand, cannot always be foreseen or avoided. Here, the best approach is to leave some time in your schedule to handle unexpected issues and unplanned important activities. (If a major crisis arises, then you'll need to reschedule other events.)

If you have a lot of urgent and important activities, identify which of these could have been foreseen, and think about how you could schedule similar activities ahead of time, so that they don't become urgent.

Urgent and Not Important

Urgent but not important activities are things that stop you achieving your goals, and prevent you from completing your work. Ask yourself whether these tasks can be rescheduled, or whether you can delegate them.

A common source of such interruptions is from other people in your office. Sometimes it's appropriate to say "No" to people politely, or to encourage them to solve the problem themselves (our article "'Yes' to the Person, 'No' to the Task"   will help here ). Alternatively, try scheduling time when you are available, so that people know that they can interrupt you at these times (a good way of doing this is to schedule a regular meeting, so that all issues can be dealt with at the same time.) By doing this, you'll be able to concentrate on your important activities for longer periods of time.

Not Urgent, but Important

These are the activities that help you achieve your personal and professional goals, and complete important work. Make sure that you have plenty of time to do these things properly, so that they do not become urgent. And remember to leave enough time in your schedule to deal with unforeseen problems. This will maximize your chances of keeping on schedule, and help you avoid the stress of work becoming more urgent than necessary.

Not Urgent and Not Important

These activities are just a distraction, and should be avoided if possible. Some can simply be ignored or cancelled. Others are activities that other people may want you to do, but they do not contribute to your own desired outcomes. Again, say "No" politely, if you can.

If people see you are clear about your objectives and boundaries, they will often not ask you to do "not important" activities in the future.

Key Points

The Urgent/Important Matrix helps you look at your task list, and quickly identify the activities you should focus on. By prioritizing using the Matrix, you can deal with truly urgent issues, at the same time that you keep on working towards important goals.

This site teaches you the skills you need for a happy and successful career; and this is just one of many tools and resources that you'll find here at Mind Tools. Click here for more, subscribe to our free newsletter, or become a member for just $1.

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