The Urgency/Importance Matrix , said to have been used originally by President Eisenhower, is a simple way of arranging your tasks in four boxes depending on how important and urgent they are.
Quickly and accurately judging the urgency and importance of each task you have to do is an important skill when you have to juggle multiple tasks.
The matrix helps you by dividing tasks into four categories:
Urgent and Important
These obviously have to be done immediately or as soon as possible, or some other coping action has to be taken.
Non-Urgent and Important
These are tasks which are important for the long-term but not for the short term. Planning falls into this category. Most people would do well to give these tasks a higher priority.
Urgent and Unimportant
These are tasks which force themselves into your consciousness but aren’t of much benefit to you. Any repeated, unwanted interruptions fall into this category.
Non-Urgent and Unimportant
These are tasks which simply shouldn’t be done. If you find yourself doing them – they are the sort of things that might make you feel a little guilty, such as an excess of playing computer games.
Using the Matrix
To illustrate how the matrix is used, I’ve added some tasks to just two boxes: Urgent and Important and Non-urgent and Unimportant“.
I think you’ll find the distinctions between these two groups of tasks are stark : the tasks in the top left box just have to be done right now. Whereas the tasks in the bottom right box simply waste your time.
The Most Important Tasks
The value of the urgency/importance matrix is that it can help you see any task in a new light.
For example, before you agree to do something for someone else you will become more aware of how much it’s going to cost you – because it will take away the time you were going to spend on planning an important project you have in mind. That won’t always make you say: “No”, to people but it will sometimes: and that’s time released for your benefit.
And project planning belongs in Box 1 – as it’s labelled below. This is the Non-urgent and Important tasks – those which, as I said earlier, most people would do well to spend more time on.
The “Important Column”
As it says in the above diagram, you should be spending 95% of your time on the tasks in the “Important” column.
You will already be spending time in Box 2, but the failing for most people is not to spend enough time in Box 1. As well as planning, the tasks in Box 1 include reviewing, networking, forecasting and other tasks which are essential to medium and long-term business growth and improvement.
But where do you find the time to do more tasks in box 1?
There are two answers to that but first, let’s have a look at the matrix with all the boxes filled in.
I return to the above question – how can you spend more time in box 1?
Spend Less Time in Boxes 3 and 4
For a start, spend little or no time in Box 4. J
For Box 3, you can often save a lot of time on these tasks. It might surprise you just how much. For example:
Manage Your Email Better
For a start, completely empty your email inbox daily, and probably several times a day. “Deleted” is usually kept as an archive (check this) so Deleted, does not actually mean Deleted! I’ve got email in my Deleted folder going back to 2007.
Have a secondary inbox and set up rules in your email program to send all non-urgent, unimportant email to that secondary inbox. If you set up rules like on all email that comes in for about a week, you will find that your usual inbox has been reduced to about 20% of its normal complement of emails. It makes it much easier to scan them for the really important ones. It’s a huge time-saver.
Obviously, unsubscribe to all emails which you don’t need.
About once a day, quickly scan the emails in your secondary inbox for anything you want. Then highlight the lot and delete them (as long as your email system retains emails in the deleted folder in case you need to retrieve them. Most do.)
Make it a firm rule never to read an email twice. As you read it, take action on it. Either take the action there and then, create a to do for later action, file, pass it on or delete it. If you use the Timology time management system then forward it to your Evernote email address so you can later give it a Timology “When Tag” if it’s a To-do or move it to your Filing folder. Then delete it.
Reset Others’ Expectations
If other people are dumping their problems on you and it’s inappropriate, then this belongs in Box 3. Resetting their expectations might be as simple as just sending a couple of things back to them saying you can’t fit them in your schedule. If it’s your boss doing this then the simple answer is to say to them:
“You’ve asked me to do task A, but you’ve already given me task B and task C and I can’t do all three by the deadline. If you want me to do task A which of the others shall I drop?”
This may well make them think twice about giving you a task which is not really appropriate for you – and which they could do themselves or perhaps pass on to somebody else.
Interruptions can be another problem. If it’s a phone – then this can be dealt with by limiting the amount of time you have it turned on. Perhaps let people know that you’ll be available between certain times only. Or if it’s people coming into your office, one way of dealing with this is to stand up when they come in. The, at a pause in the conversation say:
“Well, good to see you – now I really must get on with XYX now…”, before sitting down. An approach like this can “train” colleagues not to bother you so frequently.
Managing Boxes 1 and 2
So now, by looking at, and thinking about, the tasks which you’d categorise as belonging in Boxes 3 and 4, you’ll feel motivated to release time from these to spend in Boxes 1 and 2 – especially Box 1.
Here’s the thing about Boxes 1 and 2.
TASKS TEND TO PASS FROM BOX 1 to BOX 2.
This is because Box 1 contains tasks which are non-urgent now: but if you don’t do them for long enough some of these will become urgent – so pass into Box 2: Urgent and Important.
So spending more time on Box 1 tasks will stop you having so much stuff which is screaming for your attention (Box 2).
Spending time in Box 1 means you can decide to do some stuff which would become urgent next week but if you do it right now, it will involve less pressure. Which usually means you can do it more efficiently.
Use Your Friend – Your Diary
An easy way to start spending more time in Box 1 is to schedule Box 1 tasks in your diary. This is one of the few events which deserves being in your diary. (Make sure the only things in your diary are things which absolutely are related to a specific date or time.)
For example, if you decide to spend time planning a specific project or completely clearing your intray (as with your email inbox – a huge benefit for efficiency) then create an entry in your calendar at a specific time and set a reminder.
Scheduling Box 1 tasks in your diary will get you spending less and less time in the sometimes unpleasant and high pressure atmosphere of Box 2.
The Huge Benefit of the Urgency/Importance Matrix
You now have a new way to view every one of your tasks. Download this template or draw your own urgency and importance matrix on a piece of paper and write your tasks in the appropriate box.
After doing this for a while you will find yourself automatically sorting your tasks better. You will find yourself managing to delegate or completely avoid tasks which don’t move you forward. And you will find yourself better able to avoid emergencies and crises – Box 2 tasks – because you are choosing to spend more time on Box 1 tasks.
The most effective people spend the most time on their Box 1 tasks.
Good luck with your use of the Urgency/Importance matrix. It is one tool which can make a huge difference to your time management.