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Urgent Versus Important: Use Your Time Effectively

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Your boss has asked you to prepare an important presentation for a critical 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. How can you beat this stress, and deliver the things that matter to do a good job?

An Urgent/Important Matrix helps you review your priorities and determine which 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 time effectively. Excellent time management means being effective and efficient. To achieve your goals you must spend time on things that are important and not just urgent. To minimize the stress of too many tight deadlines, it’s important to understand this distinction:

  • IMPORTANT activities have an outcome that leads to the achievement of your goals (professional or personal).
  • URGENT activities demand immediate attention and are often associated with achieving someone else’s goals.

Unfortunately urgent activities are often the activities we concentrate our time on; they demand attention because the consequences of not dealing with them are immediate.

This Urgent/Important matrix has been attributed to former US President Eisenhower and Stephen Covey. “What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important,” sums up the concept perfectly. This “Eisenhower Principle” is how Eisenhower organized his tasks and Covey brought the idea into the mainstream in his 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

How to Use the Tool – The matrix is a powerful yet simple way of thinking about priorities. It helps you overcome the natural tendency to focus on urgent activities, so you can clear enough time to focus on what’s important to you. This is the way you move from “fire-fighting” to a position where you can grow your business/career. Here’s how it works: The matrix can be drawn (figure 1) with the dimensions of Important and Urgent.

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

  1. Have your SMART goals defined and written down in front of you.
  2. List all the activities and projects that you feel you have to do. Include everything that takes up your time at work, however unimportant. If you use “to-do” lists you should have this information already.
  3. On a scale of 1-5 (5 is highly important) assign importance to each activity. Remember, this is a measure of how important the activity is in helping you meet your SMART goals. Your goals should be your guiding light.
  4. Evaluate each activity’s urgency (1-5). Then plot each activity on the matrix according to the values that you’ve given it.
  5. Now study the matrix using the strategies described below to schedule your priorities.

 Figure 1



Strategies for Different Quadrants of the Matrix

IMPORTANT AND URGENT – 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. 
Avoid last-minute activities by planning and avoid procrastinating.

However, issues and crises cannot always be foreseen. Leave some time in your schedule to handle unexpected important activities. If you have a lot of urgent and important activities, identify which could have been foreseen and think about how you could schedule such activities ahead of time to prevent important activities becoming so urgent. Prioritize your schedule with these activities. Minimize or block interruptions.

NOT IMPORTANT AND URGENT – These activities are things that stop you achieving your goals and prevent you from completing your work. Do these tasks need to be done at all? If yes, can they be rescheduled or delegated? 
A common source of such interruptions is from other people. Sometimes it’s appropriate to say “no” politely or to encourage them to solve the problem for themselves (see blog article “Managers Use Your Strengths To Avoid the Monkey” to help you do this). Alternatively, try scheduling time when you are available between set hours so they don’t keep interrupting you (e.g. 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 more extended periods.

IMPORTANT NOT URGENT – These activities help you achieve your goals. Make sure to have plenty of time to do these things properly, so they do not become urgent. Remember to leave enough time to deal with unforeseen problems to keep you on schedule and help you avoid the stress of work becoming more urgent than necessary.

NOT IMPORTANT NOT URGENT – These activities are just a distraction and should be avoided. Some can simply be ignored or canceled. Others are activities other people may want you to do, but don’t contribute to your own desired outcomes. Learn to say no politely and explain why. If people see you are clear about your objectives and boundaries they will not ask you to do unimportant activities in the future.

A key question to ask yourself: “Am I adding important/urgent tasks to my to-do list that I could instead delegate to help my team grow?” Delegation is always tough for a manager and you should incorporate the strengths of you and your team when doing so. But we will have to wait for another article to get into the specifics of that.

We hope that this approach provides you value. If you need more help for you and your team please do not hesitate to reach out to us.

Regards, The Churchill Leadership Group Team