The Urgent / Important Matrix

I’ve been attending management training courses the last few months, with one one-day course per month. The most recent one was on Time Management. I wouldn’t say I’m the greatest time manager, in fact a little disorganised, but luckily my public image is much better than my own mental image: people tell me that I get things done on time. Checking back, it’s true – but I always feel I can do better.

So it was great that one thing in particular grabbed me during the course: the Urgent / Important Matrix. The matrix struck me as a great way to evaluate workloads and priorities in a lightweight way, and I’m going to start using it at work to see how it pans out. I believe it originated in Stephen Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”, a book I haven’t read but have just added to my Amazon wish list.

Grab your current To Do list, or whatever else you use to track tasks, and go through each in turn. For each task, you assign an Urgency rating and an Importance rating. To keep it simple, your urgency is either Urgent or Not Urgent, and your importance (yep, you guessed it) is either Important or Not Important. You might find it easier to draw a large 2×2 grid with Importance on the x-axis, and Urgency on the y-axis. Write down the tasks in the appropriate box for their Urgency/Importance combination.

Now take a look at those tasks on the matrix.

At one extreme, we have the tasks that are neither urgent nor important. These are likely to be time-wasters and should be dealt with appropriately. Do, Delegate, Dump or Defer. If they’re quick tasks, or you have nothing else to do, do them: get them completed and off your list as soon as possible. Better yet, delegate the tasks to people who want to tackle thm and are able to get the work done. Otherwise, dump or defer the task. If it doesn’t need to be done, get rid of it from your list or defer until you know it can go. If it becomes important or urgent later, it’ll come back – we all know that from experience!

At the other extreme are the tasks that are both important and urgent. Your website has been Slashdotted, your data centre is currently engulfed by flames, or your new project rollout has failed spectacularly and it needs to be fixed ASAP. This section of the matrix is reserved for crises. You need to focus on dealing with those tasks straight away, but you also need to ensure two things: make sure you don’t end up firefighting the same issue again later on, and make sure other tasks don’t start creeping into this part of the matrix while you deal with a crisis task.

That leaves us two bits…

Urgent but Not Important tasks are ripe for delegation, if possible. If you can’t delegate them, they should be dealt with quickly and efficiently. Focus on resolving only the urgent aspect(s) of the task so you don’t use up valuable time needed for other tasks. Ultimately you’ll end up with a task struck off the To Do list, or one that is now no longer urgent or important.

Important but Not Urgent tasks are the interesting bit: these are usually the main tasks of your job role. I found this rather surprising, because I started off thinking most of my work was in the Urgent + Important category (my customers would certainly say they are), but it isn’t. Suddenly things seemed much clearer and more manageable. You need to keep on top of these tasks though, allocating sufficient time to get tasks done. Otherwise, they will end up rising in urgency and become crisis tasks.

If you’re struggling to find the time to do everything on your To Do list, give the matrix a try and see if it helps. You’ll probably find some tasks that can be delegated, some others that can be dumped and a few that can be struck off the list by finding a spare few minutes during a hectic day (great when you’ve hit a problem and need to take a break and do something else). More importantly, you’ll spot the ones that absolutely need to be dealt with first, and the ones that really matter to your day-to-day work.

Further reading:

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