Tuesday 22 September 2009

The Urgent / Important Matrix

Using Time Effectively, Not Just Efficiently

It's urgent, but is it really important?

We've all been there: The project is due for today's meeting and we are only three quarters done. Our anxiety is at its peak, we can't concentrate, everything is a distraction, and then, finally, we blow!

Time stressors are some of the most pervasive sources of pressure and stress in the workplace, and they happen as a result of having too much to do in too little time.

With this kind of pressure all too common, effective time management is an absolute necessity. You probably use a day-planner and to-do list to manage your time. These tools are certainly helpful, but they don't allow you to drill down to one of the most essential elements of good time management: distinguishing between what is important and what is urgent.

Great time management means being effective as well as efficient. Managing time effectively, and achieving the things that you want to achieve, means spending your time on things that are important and not just urgent. To do this, and to minimize the stress of having too many tight deadlines, you need to distinguish clearly between what is urgent and what is important:

•Important activities have an outcome that leads to the achievement of your goals.
•Urgent activities demand immediate attention, and are usually associated with the achievement of someone else's goals, or with an uncomfortable problem or situation that needs to be resolved.

Urgent activities are often the ones we concentrate on. These are the "squeaky wheels that get the grease." They demand attention because the consequences of not dealing with them are immediate.

The Urgent/Important Matrix is a useful tool for thinking about this.
The idea of measuring and combining these two competing elements in a matrix has been attributed to both former US President Eisenhower and Dr Stephen Covey.

Eisenhower's quote, "What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important," sums up the concept of the matrix perfectly. This so-called "Eisenhower Principle" is said to be how Eisenhower organized his tasks. As a result, the matrix is sometimes called the Eisenhower Matrix.

Covey brought the idea into the mainstream and gave it the name "The Urgent/Important Matrix" in his 1994 business classic, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

How to Use the Tool:

The Urgent/Important Matrix is a powerful way of thinking about priorities. Using it helps you overcome the natural tendency to focus on urgent activities, so that you can keep enough time clear to focus on what's really important. This is the way you move from "firefighting", into a position where you can grow your business and your career.

The matrix is drawn as a quadrant, with dimensions of Importance on the vertical axis and Urgency on the horizontal axis, defined as high or low priority. It contains four elements, i.e. Important Goals, Critical Activities, Distractions and Interruptions which are plotted on the quadrant.

The steps below help you use the matrix to prioritize your activities:
1.Firstly, list all of the activities and projects you feel you have to do. Try to include everything that takes up your time at work, however unimportant. (If you manage your time using an Action Program, you'll already have done this.)
2.Next, assign importance to each of the activities – you can do this on, say, a scale of 1 to 5: Remember, this is a measure of how important the activity is in helping you meet your goals and objectives. Try not to worry about urgency at this stage, as this helps get to the true importance.
3.Once you have assigned importance to each activity, evaluate the urgency of each activity. As you do this, you can plot the listed items on the matrix according to the assigned importance and urgency.
4.Now study the matrix using the guidelines below, and schedule your work according to your priorities.

Strategies for Different Quadrants of the Matrix

Urgent and Important ("Critical Activities"):
There are two distinct types of urgent and important activities: Ones that you could not foresee, and others that you have left to the last minute.

You can avoid the latter by planning ahead and avoiding procrastination.

Issues and crises, on the other hand, cannot always be foreseen or avoided. Here, the best approach is to leave some time in your schedule to handle these. Also, if a major crisis arises, some other activity may have to be rescheduled.

If this happens, identify which of you urgent-important activities could have been foreseen and think about how you could schedule similar activities ahead of time, so they do not become urgent.

Urgent and Not Important ("Interruptions"):
Urgent but not important activities can be a constant source of interruption. They stop you achieving your goals and completing your work. Ask yourself whether these tasks can be rescheduled, or whether someone else could do them.

A common source of such interruptions is from other people coming into your office. Sometimes it's appropriate to say "No" to people, or encourage them to solve the problem themselves. Alternatively, try allocating time when you are available, so that people only interrupt you at certain times (a good way of doing this is to schedule a regular meeting so that all issues can be dealt with at the same time). By doing this, the flow of work on your important activities will be less disrupted.

Not Urgent, but Important ("Important Goals"):
These are the activities that you can plan ahead for to achieve your goals and complete your work. Make sure that you have plenty of time to achieve these, so that they do not become urgent. And remember to leave enough time in your schedule to deal with unforeseen problems. This will maximize your chances of keeping on schedule, and help you avoid the stress of work becoming more urgent that necessary.

Not Urgent and Not Important ("Distractions"):
These activities are just a distraction, and should be avoided if possible. Some can simply be ignored. Others are activities that other people want you to do, but they do not contribute to your own desired outcomes. Again, say "No" politely and firmly where this is appropriate.

If people see you are clear about your objectives and boundaries, they will often not ask you to do "not important" activities in future.

Key Points

The Urgent/Important Matrix helps you look at your task list, and quickly identify the activities you should focus on. By prioritizing using the Matrix, you can deal with truly urgent issues, at the same time that you keep on working towards your goals.

This article is reproduced with permission of MindTools


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