Many of us spend all day in meetings where we accumulate more to-do items and have no time to actually complete the work. We work more hours but still feel like we will never get caught up and as a result, feel overwhelmed, anxious, and unable to focus. This constant state of ‘busyness’ is not sustainable and may lead to feelings of inadequacy, and eventually burnout.
All leaders are faced with planning their week for optimal productivity and part of that is prioritizing tasks that are urgent, important, or a combination of both. If you struggle with too many tasks and not enough time, the Urgent-Important Matrix, created by Stephen Covey, is an easy and effective tool to help prioritize an overflowing schedule. This framework builds reflective practice to know which tasks to prioritize, which to schedule, which to delegate, and which to eliminate.
Understanding the difference between urgent and important
Urgent items are those that require immediate action and attention. These may include tasks with an approaching deadline, last-minute preparations/meetings, safety issues, unforeseen events, or emergencies. Urgent matters frequently have negative consequences if not completed. Although you will never completely get away from urgent tasks it is important to be mindful that spending too much time here will lead to burnout.
Important items contribute to long-term success. When you invest time in planning and being aware of potential threats, you cut down on the likelihood of emergencies. You will be less likely to be blindsided and more likely to feel in control - all of which leads to feeling less stressed and less anxious.
Gain control over your to-do list
Avoid burn out
Understand where you are spending your time versus where you want to be spending your time
To create mental space for things that make a positive difference
When to use:
You feel that you are busy all the time but can’t seem to get anything done
You have long-term goals and projects that you are passionate about but can’t seem to muster the energy to get started
You aren’t sure which task to prioritize
You can’t figure out why you have no time to get anything done
How to use:
There are two key ways to use this matrix to regain control of your schedule and sanity. The first is to understand where you are spending the majority of your time; the second is to help make a decision about what to prioritize.
Understanding where you spend your time
If you feel that your work is managing you, print out a copy/use a digital copy of the matrix and keep it near your workspace. Each time you complete a task or attend a meeting, take a moment to think about which quadrant it falls under and place a dot or mark in that box. Do this for a week. At the end of your week, look to see where you are spending most of your time. Your goal is to spend the majority of your time in quadrant 2, (Not urgent but important). Q2 is the power quadrant because time spent here increases your overall effectiveness so when emergencies do arise you are able to manage them. If you see that you are spending a lot of time in other quadrants, that may be the key to why you feel so drained. With this knowledge, you can create a plan to manage your workload and feel less stressed. Let’s take a look at what to do if you find that you are spending more time in one or more of the other quadrants.
Quadrant 1: (Urgent, Important) If you spend a lot of time here, you are running around putting out fires and your schedule is potentially filled with other people’s priorities. Sometimes Q1 is unavoidable, for example, when your supervisor requires a last-minute meeting or task. To avoid spending a lot of time here, invest in planning and on items within your control. Focusing on what you can control includes spending time in regular planning to anticipate issues before they happen thus avoiding last-minute panic.
Quadrant 3: (Urgent, Not important) This is the quadrant of distraction. Some items included here are non-urgent emails, things you said yes to that you wish you didn’t, and non-essential meetings. If you spend a lot of time here, you may be using your to-do list as a way to demonstrate value or to keep you from tackling a more difficult project. Where possible, take a look at your list and decide if the item is really important to your overall work or well-being. If not, eliminate it. If it needs to be done but does not require your unique skillset, delegate it. Once you have cleared items that are of low value you may find that you have the energy to devote to that big project you have been putting off.
Quadrant 4: (Not urgent, Not important) This is the quadrant of things that waste time and have low value. Included here are social media, doom scrolling, playing online games, mindless TV watching, and other behaviors whose purpose is to distract you. If you find yourself spending a lot of time here it is possible that you are procrastinating, burned out, or stuck. Take some time to reconnect with your values and your passion and prioritize time in Q2.
How to prioritize
Another way to use the matrix is when you are faced with a long list of items to be completed and you aren’t sure what to work on.
Look at each task and determine which quadrant it belongs to.
Items falling in Q1 will need your immediate attention; prioritize them first.
Items falling in Q2 should be your next priority.
Items in Q3 should be delegated to others, eliminated, or reduced to bare necessities.
Finally, anything landing in Q4 should be removed from your list.
The Urgent-Important matrix is a fast and easy way to immediately see where you are spending the majority of your time and to take steps to reclaim your schedule. The matrix helps to both understand where you are spending your time as well as how to prioritize your time.