Part two of this blog on prioritisation looks at a very useful matrix – the Importance Vs Urgency matrix.
This is an invaluable tool which helps you to prioritise by focussing on important, not urgent activities. if you struggle to meet deadlines or are swamped by an enormous to-do list – then this blog is for you!
If you haven’t read part one yet, then click here to read it.
How does it work?
In a nutshell, the matrix helps you to choose which tasks or actions to focus on by understanding how important and how urgent each task is. The matrix helps us to invest more time in dealing with important activities, and guides us away from the urgent activities.
Each quadrant has a suggested action that we should use for it’s tasks
- Important AND Urgent: Just do it
- Important but Not Urgent: Schedule it
- Not Important but Urgent: Push Back and
- Not Important AND Not Urgent: Ignore
So how do I know what is important and what is urgent?
Urgent actions or tasks are simply those that have close deadlines; such as ASAP, or by close of play.
Important actions are those that help you to achieve your objectives or priorities. Remember your 5 year plan? Does this task get you closer to your one year goal? Would you risk your action plan by not doing this task? If you answer “yes” to questions like these, then the task is probably important.
Don’t get urgency mixed up with importance. If someone else is moaning about timelines it might be important for them – but that doesn’t mean it’s important to you…
Now lets look at each quadrant in turn…
Q1: Important AND Urgent
This is the just do it box; if an action is in this box, just get on with it. Time spent in this box is often firefighting. It’s quite a stressful box to be in – and you probably want to limit your time spent in this box to 10-20% max.
An example might be a phone call from The Chairman, asking for you to dig out some information for his radio interview in 15 minutes. It’s important because it’s the chairman, and it’s urgent as well.
Another example might be a customer query – important because a sale is dependant on the answer, and urgent because they might walk away if they don’t get a quick response.
What are your important and urgent tasks? How much of your time is spent in this quadrant? Do you spend 80% of your working life firefighting? You need to spend more time doing tasks that are…
Q2: Important BUT NOT Urgent
This is a lovely quadrant to be in. Completing tasks from this box gives you a warm glow inside – you know you’ve just done something that adds value to your life – and nobody was chasing you!
The problem is that you need to find time to work on these tasks. The trick is to schedule this time. Protect this time! Tasks that are important but not urgent will eventually become urgent if you leave them long enough.
The classic example is exercise. It’s never urgent (unless you’re a Premiership Footballer), but it’s very important for your health. If one of your goals is to get/stay fit, then you need to make sure that you are blocking out time when you can exercise.
This is the quadrant we should all aim to spend most of our time in. If you’re brutally honest, how much time do you really spend on these non-urgent tasks? 10%? 0%? If the only action you take after reading this email is to block out some of your diary to approach these tasks every week, then you will have gained something tangible from this blog.
Watch out for tasks that are…
Q3: Urgent BUT NOT Important
These are the kind of activities that steal away all of your productive time. The phone ringing, someone else’s problems, deadlines for other people, etc etc. But these are the activities that we can naturally fall into if we are not careful.
Imagine you are in the middle of creating that non-urgent, but very important report and the phone rings. Dave asks you to come upstairs and look into a problem he has with his computer crashing. You’re seen as a computer whiz, so he thought you could fix it for him. If you wander upstairs and spend 30 minutes sorting Dave out, you have prioritised someone else’s actions over your own.
The action that works in this quadrant is to push back. It’s not a nice phrase, and I don’t really like doing it – but I’ve learned the more you say “yes” to requests like Dave’s, the less of your own time that you have. You could say to Dave “I’m in the middle of something important at the moment – can I come up at noon?” The more you say things like that, the less Dave relies on you and starts to solve his own problems.
How much of this rings true? Are you a Yes-Man or a Yes-Woman? If you’ve scheduled some Q2 time – why don’t you ignore the ringing phone, or find a quiet spot to work on your actions. Getting good at identifying and reducing your Q3 activities is a major step forward in learning to prioritise.
Q4: Not Urgent AND Not Important
These activities have the simplest approach – ignore! Timewasters, paper exercises, and pointless phone calls – all these need to be ignored.
For me, I go through phases of getting calls from my mobile phone provider. The last time they offered me an iPad for a monthly subscription. I told them I don’t want any more monthly bills and hung up – all in less than a minute. I used to give the guy his time, listen to his pitch and then try and gently let him down; all that used to happen was he smelled fear and pushed harder.
Most people are pretty good at avoiding this quadrant. If you find it difficult then why not try hanging up on people without finishing the conversation? Who care what they think right? You don’t need any ‘tricks’ (like pretending your phone is ringing) to get rid of people or timewasters, just be polite but firm. “Can I stop you there, I’m afraid I’ve got some urgent things I need to attend to – I’m afraid I’ve not got time to talk to you right now…”
Again I used to be rubbish at this. I found that it gets easier each time you do it – the first time is always the hardest!
The Importance Vs Urgency Matrix is a great way to ensure that you are spending your time wisely, on your priorities. Why don’t you take your latest to-do list and plot it on a similar matrix? It’s really interesting to understand how many tasks are actually important (rather than urgent).
In a nutshell – try your hardest to schedule and protect your Q2 important and not urgent time. Once you’ve got into the habit you should find that less and less things ever become urgent, as you are on top of them with time to spare. This also means that when Q1 urgent and important actions come your way you’ve got space and time to give them your full attention.
This approach was popularised by Steven Covey in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. This is one of my top 5 books and I cannot recommend this highly enough. You can purchase the book from Amazon here if you want to have a read – it’s definitely worth it…
This blog is part of my productivity philosophy, which to date has looked at your inbox, your calendar and your to-do list. I’m really keen on sharing my thoughts and ideas and would love to hear your feedback. You can either comment on the webpage below, or click one of the sharing buttons below.