The Urgent vs. The Important

Businesspeople who are concerned about improving their productivity have become passionately interested the last few years in concepts related to time management and efficiency, ranging from the whole-life organization system of David Allen’s GETTING THINGS DONE to the delightful creative principles and “life hacks” of Merlin Mann’s 43 FOLDERS.

Any insights that can improve our ability to spend our time on the right things (and avoid spending our time on the wrong things) should be incredibly valuable. But sometimes it seems we spend more time thinking about how to attack the piles and to-do lists in front of us than we do actually getting anything done.

When thinking about how to be more productive, our partner Mark Nevins really likes the simple concept of “the urgent vs. the important.” Popularized by a number of writers over the last decade, including Stephen Covey, this principle can be thought of as the first and most important step in becoming more efficient and productive.

Imagine a classic two-by-two matrix where the X-axis represents “Importance” and the Y-axis represents “Urgency.” The upper right-hand quadrant, then, will stand for “Most Urgent and Most Important.” The lower left-hand quadrant is “Least Urgent and Least Important.” Upper left is “Most Urgent and Least Important,” and finally lower right is “Least Urgent and Most Important.” (Nevins likes the model, he jokes, because “consultants know that everything in the world can be expressed in a two-by-two matrix.”)

So, what’s the point of this model? Simple: Consider all of the things you do in a given day or week, from meetings to project work to phone calls and e-mails, and assign each of those things to one of the four quadrants. Then ask yourself, and answer honestly: “In which quadrant(s) do I spend most of my time in a given day or week?”

The quadrant that demands most of our focus (as well it should) is the upper right quadrant, “Most Urgent and Most Important.” This is where we’ll find things like crises (business and personal), deadline-driven project and deliverables, and major business commitments: that client emergency, a family health issue, the Second Quarter report for the Board. The Urgent/Important quadrant is typically composed of the most critical things in our lives, and the things we usually need to do ourselves.

Of course, the quadrant that should demand the least—or even none—of our focus is the bottom left quadrant, “Least Urgent and Least Important.” This is where we find busy work, dealing with junk mail, and a whole variety of time-sucking low-payoff activities. And yes, that includes Facebook. The most productive people will work constantly to spend as little time as possible here, and ideally will ideally delegate some of these things to others. Nothing in this quadrant needs to be done today, and much of it doesn’t even need to be done by you.

The trickiest quadrants, however, are the upper left (“Most Urgent and Least Important”) and the lower right (“Least Urgent and Most Important”). Let’s explore these in more depth.

If you answered that question above honestly, you will find that you spend way too much of your time in the Urgent/Unimportant quadrant. This is where we find the hundreds of e-mail we get every day (which we answer right when we hear that “bing”), as well as interruptions, tangential projects, and too many of the meetings we all agree to attend, usually via Outlook Calendar (one of the greatest productivity killers ever invented). This upper left quadrant is tricky because when we’re operating in it we FEEL very productive: I dealt with those three unexpected requests, I answered 63 e-mails, and I even managed to update my Facebook status! Now I’ll go to lunch, and when I get back I can start working on today’s to-do list.

The lower right-hand quadrant is the most challenging: this is the quadrant where the really important stuff sits, but none of it is urgent. Here we find innovation (“Where do I want this business to be in three years, and how can we get it there?”), strategy (“How can we better differentiate ourselves from our competitors?”), professional development (“How can I deepen my own knowledge or capabilities?”), vocation (“What’s the next step in my career, and how can I position myself to get there?”), and personal but absolutely critical matters like exercise, health, and family. As much as we know these are the most important things in our lives, we tend to let them slip: it’s much easier and more exciting to deal with the fires that are burning rather than think about fireproofing the house for the future. (Admit it: many of us are Urgency Junkies, and after a day of dealing with “crises” we feel like we’ve been very productive.)

So, as the MBAs like to say, what are the “key take-aways” from the Urgent-Important matrix? Here are a few:

1. Most of us spend too much of our time in the wrong quadrants. We need to be more judicious about how we prioritize (see last year’s “Big Rocks” newsletter), and we should find ways to delegate the things that don’t need to be done today and/or by us.

2. We often fool ourselves, and routinely assign things to the wrong quadrants, or act as if we’ve done so. Which quadrant does Facebook really belong in? But how do most people treat it in reality? Ditto that meeting or those e-mails we were cc:ed on.

3. We don’t recognize that even if something is not “Urgent” we still need to make time for it, or it won’t ever get done. The tragedy of the lower right-hand quadrant is that we tend to leave those things simmering on the back burner until it’s too late. I had a great idea for a new product, but I never got around to putting it on paper, and there’s my competitor launching exactly what I had envisioned. I was going to start working out more regularly, and now my doctor’s telling me I’m in really poor shape and maybe even looking at a disease or ailment I might have prevented. I resolved (every New Year’s for years) to spend more time with my family, but now my parents have passed on, the kids are looking at colleges (and they don’t seem to want my input), and I have lost the connection with my spouse.

There are undoubtedly many other take-aways, and if you have ideas or reactions, we’d love to hear them. Send us a note:

The Urgent/Important matrix is simple but powerful, and it takes focus, discipline, and honesty to benefit from it. For most of us, the categorization and prioritization are an ongoing work-in-progress, but one we owe it to ourselves to keep up.

"Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers, who can cut through argument, debate, and doubt to offer a solution everybody can understand." — General Colin Powell