How to get more done using the important urgent matrix:
“What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.” ~ Dwight D. Eisenhower
Do you find your day is often spent fighting fires, managing crisis and never getting on top of a never ending to do list?
If so, you may find the important urgent matrix a useful tool to help you prioritise your tasks, spend less time fighting fires and more time staying on top of your important tasks.
The important urgent matrix was popularised by Stephen Covey in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, a book I highly recommend you read if you haven’t yet had the chance. Prior to Stephen Covey popularising it, it was a tool used by U.S. President Eisenhower. He used this tool to assess urgency and importance before making decisions and to delegate as many of his tasks as he could.
The urgent-important matrix is a great tool to prioritise your tasks 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 mean and how can you use it?
Important/Urgent (Quadrant 1-Necessity):
Tasks that fall into this quadrant are your highest priority tasks. They need to be done now. Poor planning and prioritising will mean you spend most of your time here, when, your goal should be to spend as little time as possible here.
The more tasks you have here, the more you will feel you are constantly fighting fires and reacting to crisis. This is the quadrant of stress and burn-out as you are working solely as a fire-fighter and can never find the time to work on longer term plans.
Once a task falls into here, there is little you can do other than get it done. If there are too many conflicting priorities in here, try to get assistance, delegate or request deadlines are moved.
Effective planning and prioritising will help keep tasks out of this quadrant. That said, things do pop up and you may be met with demands from others that fall into this quadrant. Therefore, the less of your own tasks in here will mean you are more able to address important and urgent demands from others. Remember to always asks for deadlines (or extensions) as what you perceive as urgent may actually be able to be completed at a later date.
Important/Urgent (Quadrant 2-Quality):
This is the quadrant where you want to spend most of your time. According to Covey, even 80% of your time.
Working on tasks that fall into this quadrant means you are working on the important things and have time to do them properly.
Tasks in this quadrant are probably the most neglected ones because they are not due yet, however, they are the ones most crucial for success. Fire-fighting tasks in quadrant one and distracting tasks from quadrant three are the tasks that take you away from spending time on these tasks. Therefore, you need to plan and schedule when you will do these tasks.
Book time into your diary to do these, in much the same way you would an appointment or meeting. Block out other distractions so that you can focus on completing these tasks when scheduled.
Remember, the more time you spend working in quadrant two, on important tasks before they are due, the less time you’ll spending chasing deadlines and reacting in quadrant one.
Not Important/Urgent (Quadrant 3 – Deception):
This quadrant is a trap and is deceptive. Spend as little time on tasks that fall into here as possible as these are the tasks that make you busy but not productive.
It’s easy to mistake these tasks for important ones, when in fact they are important to someone else achieving their goals, but not important to you achieving yours.
Reacting to emails, interruptions and requests from others fall into this quadrant. The easiest way to stay out of this quadrant is to:
- Batch phone calls and emails – only read or listen and respond once you’ve finished your important tasks. Switch off email notifications so you aren’t tempted to react every time one comes in
- Minimise interruptions – let people know you are happy to help/chat once you’ve finished the task you are working on
- Learn to say no – there are many ways to do this without shutting someone down. Saying no can be tricky to do but can have a huge impact on how productive you are. If you want some tips on how to say no, read more here.
- Manage people’s expectations – ask for deadlines, let people know you can do it once you’ve finished XYZ.
- Look for better ways of doing things – teams and organisations can get up in the culture of ‘that’s how we’ve always done it around here’. Challenge these assumptions, there may well be a better, quicker, more effective approach.
Not Important/Not Urgent (Quadrant 4 – Waste):
This is the quadrant of procrastination and waste.
This is the quadrant where you need to be honest with yourself. It’s ok to have some time here but are you spending too much time here at the expense of getting quadrant two tasks done.
This quadrant often doesn’t contain tasks but habits. People go to this quadrant for a break, particularly if they are spending all their time in quadrants one and three.
How to use the important urgent matrix:
Print the matrix out, assess your tasks and assign them to the relevant quadrant. This will give you an indication of where you should be spending your time.
Don’t do quadrant three tasks before you have ticked off your quadrant one and two tasks.
Schedule quadrant two tasks in your diary or calendar so that you complete them before they become quadrant one activities.
Aim to spend most of your time in quadrant two. The only way you can find more time to spend in quadrant two is by spending less time in quadrant three and quadrant four. Remember, quadrant one tasks have to be done so you can’t find time for quadrant two tasks by not completing the quadrant one tasks you have.
If you still feel like you are busy fighting fires and not getting to the tasks you want, then do a time-log over a couple of days. This will give you an honest indication of where you are spending most of your time. You may be surprised by how much time you are spending in quadrant 3 and quadrant 4.
Using this tool may take a little practise and it does take discipline. Implementing this for yourself and/or your team members will give you insight into how you are spending your time and the tasks you should be focusing on.