The Urgent/Important-matrix is probably the structural tool that most people are familiar with. Chances are that you have come across it at some point. It is basically a matrix with four fields (much like a window with four mullions) where the horizontal axis addresses the urgency of the task and the vertical axis if the task is important or not.
A task can be considered important if it contributes to attainting the goals you are specifically responsible for in your company. If not, it isn’t actually important.
The idea is that you determine how prioritized a task should be by considering both its urgency and relative importance. Tasks which are both important and urgent are given the highest priority, and are the ones you do first.
But, if I am dealing with too many tasks simultaneously, which are all perceived as important and urgent — which one should I then do first? Suddenly the model is inadequate. Everything gets crammed into the same field of being most urgent and most important.
As we are all aware of, we can only do one thing at a time if we want to maintain a high quality in what we are doing and producing. Just as there are supposedly levels in hell, we therefore need to find nuances in how we define importance and urgency in order to make sense of the now crammed field of tasks with the highest priority.
Not of equal importance, after all
So what determines the nuances we now need in order to make a judgement-call? As I see it, here are a few examples of some of the factors that could influence your decision:
- To what extent the task impacts the attainment of your goals. If we want to reach a certain goal or result as soon as possible, we are doing the right thing when we do the tasks that brings us closer to fulfilling our goal. That way we will cover the most ground by exerting as little effort and time as possible.
- The goal that matters most. If I am primarily responsible for attaining four goals at work, they might after all not actually all of equal importance. One goal will always be more important than the rest. And if all the tasks are equally urgent, all are in that field of most prioritized tasks, we only can do one thing at a time, and we want what we do to have the greatest effect with the least amount of input and effort, we will be right to prioritize the task that contributes to taking us one step closer to reaching the most important goal.
- How long the task takes to complete. If the tasks you are considering doing all influence the attainment of goals which you deem to be of equal importance to the same extent, we might be right to do the task that requires the least amount of time first, since that is the fastest way to take a step closer to the finish line.
What’s the hurry?
Does it really matter then which one of the urgent and important tasks we choose to do first? Everything needs to get done anyway, and is it really that important that we reach our goals quickly? Well, that is one way to look at it. But, when we have five colleagues (or bosses) in our office and they all need our help immediately with something important, we might still be faced with the dilemma of which one to help out first.
If we were to say ”Sure, I’ll do it right away” to all five, we would be scattering our energy and focus. We might not deliver with the same high quality as we usually do, since we would find it difficult to focus on one task at a time, having the other four tasks within sight which are diverting our attention and breaking our concentration.
Saying ”yes” without regrets
In order to feel balanced while working, maintain the high quality we tend to ask of ourselves, and have enough energy to pull all the way through and finish all our tasks, we need to be able to say ”Sure, I’ll do it right away” as well as ”Yes absolutely, as soon as I finish the other task(s)” without feeling bad about it. If you are basing your ”yes” on good intentions alone, gut-feeling or on feeling obligated to help a certain colleague first due to a sense of indebtedness, you risk putting yourself in a tough spot when it comes to being able to finish it all — especially if you are an ambitious person.
This is exactly why it might benefit you to consciously create nuances for the field of most urgent and most important tasks, so that you can make a sound and sober prioritization based on the goals you are responsible for reaching and with a clear conscience — even if the person whose task just ended up at the bottom of that list happens to be your boss.
- In order to prioritize in this systematic manner when ”everything” seems important and urgent, there are a few things you can do to make it easier:
- If you are uncertain of what goals you should be looking to reach primarily in your work, you might want to discuss the matter with your boss.
- If it is clear to you what goals you are responsible for, rank them on your own or together with your boss in terms of their importance. And no, two goals cannot share a place; something has to come first — and if not always, then at least in a few given situations.
- If you frequently get asked to help out with completing a number of recurring tasks, take a few moments when you are not as busy to sit down and give them all a value between 1 and 3 that signifies to what extent the tasks contribute to doing what you consider important in your work. You might not be able to determine exactly what impact they have, but a qualified guess is better than none.
- When you are asked to do urgent and important tasks, make an estimation of how much time the task will require. If you are given several tasks during a short period of time, write the estimated time required next to each task (on your list or perhaps on a separate note). If worst comes to worst and you have to choose what task to do right now, and they all appear equally urgent and important, complete the shortest task first.
- If you want to make it easy for yourself to use what you have concluded while reflecting once things get heated, make note of the tasks you are usually given to complete and the value you gave them in terms of importance with regards to your own goals, as well as your goals in order of importance, in a place where you will be likely to catch a glance of them just as someone is asking for your assistance.
Prioritizing in the midst of all the seemingly urgent
If you create tools and prerequisites that will equip you to instantly see the nuances in all the seemingly important and urgent tasks, you will with greater ease and confidence single out the one out of several tasks of seemingly equal significance that you should rightfully do first. You will be less susceptible to other people’s various ”getting-their-will”-methods, such as the getting-angry-strategy, the flattery-trick, or the ”I‑am-so-helpless”-act.
What is your method?
How do you rid yourself of doubt and make accurate priorities even when everything you are looking at appears equally important and urgent? What is the thing you hold all tasks up against and that helps you determine what to do first? Tell me!
(On another, similar note: do you prioritize wholeheartedly?)
There is more where this came from
If you want more tips on how to create good structure at work, there are many ways to get that from me - in podcasts, videos, books, talks and other formats.