With all the posts I’ve been doing recently about being careful about what we say Yes, No and Maybe to, I thought it would be useful if I shared one of the tools I use to help me decide what to work on first. And, indeed, whether I have any bandwidth available to take on anything new.
Popularised by Stephen R Covey in his book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” (if you haven’t read it, you really should – I recommend the audiobook version), the Urgent-Important matrix (sometimes known as the Eisenhower Box) is brilliant for understanding what to prioritise. It comes from President Eisenhower’s statement that “What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.”
Identifying whether something is really important, and then deciding how urgent it is allows us to put everything into one of four boxes (ooh, I love a 4-box matrix, can you tell I’ve done an MBA?):
- Important and Urgent – these are things like major client deadlines, and we simply need to get on with them.
- Important and Not Urgent – this box includes things like strategy and planning, and our success depends upon finding time for them.
- Urgent and Not Important – now we are looking at things like a ringing telephone, or perhaps a minor but very insistent client, and they do need to be dealt with, but perhaps not as a priority over the important stuff.
- Not Urgent and Not Important – this is all the busy-work we find ourselves getting into, and to be frank, we should just dump it.
Covey points out, quite rightly, that the most essential quadrant of the box is quadrant 2, Important, but not yet Urgent. When we make the time to work on the jobs and opportunities in this quadrant, before they become urgent, that’s when we can take time to get more creative and come up with better solutions, ones that can give us a real advantage over other players in the market. Once they get into quadrant 1 (both Important AND Urgent), we don’t have that luxury.
Of course, most of us have very full diaries, so we can’t just magic up more time to invest in quadrant 2. And that’s where the matrix really comes into its own – because the best place to find that time is in quadrants 4 (obviously), but also quadrant 3. If it’s not important – in terms of getting us to where we want to be – then we should have no compunction in deciding simply not to do it. Yes, even if it’s that strident but eventually unimportant client. And yes, some clients we can do without, in the longer term.
You see, if you prioritise unimportant stuff that’s making a lot of noise, even if they are clients, you will never get the time to work on the important stuff before that becomes urgent too. And then it all merges into a haze of rush-rush-rush gotta-do-it-all, until we finally disappear up our own exhaust pipe, most likely taking the business with us!
I even go so far as to have my Urgent-Important matrix on my office wall, and I stick post-it notes on it in roughly the right positions of importance relative to each other. So I can always see, at a glance, what needs to be my priority for the day. And at the end of each day I move them around, based on their level of urgency for the next day.
Unless, of course, I’ve completed the work on them – then I get the delight of pulling them off the board and consigning them to the bin, a great feeling of achievement for the day.
Is this a tool that you could use in your business? Let us know how you might use it, in the comments below.