By Robyn Jay Bage
Whether you are a seasoned manager or someone relatively new to the joys and trials of management, you’ve probably been exposed to the Urgent/Important Matrix to help you prioritize, manage your time, or increase your productivity. It is often credited to Stephen Covey. It is also sometimes called the Eisenhower Matrix, attributing this quote to the late president: “Most things which are urgent are not important, and most things which are important are not urgent.”
No matter where you may have learned it, or what it was called, it probably looked something like the diagram below. When you are new to management, this matrix can help you learn how to prioritize the volumes of work you have to do.
Quadrant 1 should include those things that are critical and have immediate deadlines. Since many of us are in roles that are interruption driven, (that is, we routinely have to address critical emergent situations even if we are in the middle of something else) this group of tasks can drive us crazy.
Quadrant 2 is for long-term, strategic projects. Many managers NEVER get to tackle items in this area. When something is not urgent, or there is no specific deadline attached, everything else seems more important. The problem is, if we don’t address these items, our organizations never have the chance to innovate or grow.
Quadrant 3 items have no importance to you, but someone WANTS THEM NOW.
And finally, in Quadrant 4 are those things that have no real value but we find ourselves doing nonetheless.
Unfortunately, it has been my experience that even managers who are adept at using this matrix to prioritize have problems managing each quadrant, and therefore, still have time management issues. Here are a few practical ways to manage these tasks.
Quadrant 1: There is nothing you can do about your deadlines except meet them. Some people are what I refer to as incrementalists—they tackle big tasks a little at a time. Some of you are compartmentalists and tackle big tasks as whole units, forsaking other tasks while the big one gets done. Use whatever style works for you!However, you CAN address those tasks that simply interrupt you.
Do your employees just pop in with random questions that may or may not be important?
Do your clients call at all hours?
Do you feel the urge to answer each email as it comes in?
You can manage these. Meet with your staff routinely—I suggest formal meetings at least twice a month. Empower them to make routine decisions without you. Let them take some measured risks. Set aside specific times to meet your clients. And check email at routine intervals. You don’t have to read it the second You’ve Got Mail.
Quadrant 3: If the someone is your boss, you have to do what is urgent for them. Their priorities are yours, too. But if this happens too frequently, ask for a meeting to talk about it. Be prepared to present him or her with an alternative. For example, “Would it be possible to meet once a week so I can be informed about your priorities early? That way I can complete them when you need them.” If it isn’t your boss, remember that at least some of the time, you can Just Say No.
Quadrant 4: Gretchen Rubin of the Happiness Project Blog wonders why we bother to do well those things we shouldn’t bother to do at all. This blog may be enlightening.
Try this: Assess each item. If it truly has no importance for you or your role, pass it on to the person for whom it is important. Or file it. Or throw it away. (Yes, I said it. Throw it away.) Of course, if it is yours to do stop procrastinating and get it off of your list: Just Do It.
Quadrant 2. I saved this quadrant for last, because it is critical. Your organization or business will live or die by Quadrant 2. Treat each item here as you would your Urgent and Important items. Schedule time for them. Put them right in your calendar and keep your appointment to work on them.
I recommend that at the beginning of your new week (or the end of the current one) you fill out the matrix for your upcoming week. It will give you a map you can use to tackle tasks of all levels of urgency. I also recommend that you remember no tool works all of the time. Successful managers have multiple tools at their disposal.