Understanding Prioritization

Understanding Prioritization

Good time management means being effective as well as efficient. To be effective, one must achieve the goals that are important as well as the goals that are urgent. The ability to accomplish this is largely rooted in one’s ability to analyze these two dimensions independently.

  • Important activities have an outcome that leads to the achievement of goals. Importance is a dimension that measures the business impact of an activity, but does not address timing. In short, important activities are the activities that matter to the overall health of the business.
  • Urgent activities demand immediate attention. They are often associated with the achievement of someone else’s goals. Urgency is a dimension that measures the timing of activities as opposed to the business impact. In short, urgent activities are the activities that have an imminent deadline.

There is a common misconception that important activities are always urgent and that urgent activities are always important. In reality, this is seldom the case. As Dwight Eisenhower (former US President) once said, ” What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.”

Understanding the Urgent-Importance Matrix

Eisenhower developed a matrix based on these two dimensions, which was later popularized by Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. This matrix, commonly known as the “Urgent-Important Matrix” is a valuable tool for properly prioritizing work. The matrix places urgency on the horizontal axis and importance on the vertical axis, thus resulting in four quadrants.

Quandrant I. Important and Urgent – “Do it now” or “Critical Activities”

This quadrant contains the tasks that are both urgent and important. There are two distinct types of activities that fall into this quadrant:

  1. responding to unforeseen issues (e.g., a server goes down and it’s “all hands on deck” until the server is back up); and
  2. known important activities that were left to the last minute to accomplish (e.g., preparing a presentation for an important meeting).

Examples of Quadrant I activities:

  • real major emergencies and crisis issues
  • significant demands for information from superiors or customers
  • project work with imminent deadline
  • meetings and appointments
  • reports and other submissions
  • staff issues or needs
  • problem resolution, fire-fighting, fixes
  • serious urgent complaints

Quadrant II. Important but not Urgent – “Do it next” or “Important Goals”

This quadrant contains the tasks that need to get done because they are important, but they do not need to be finished immediately. If you can effectively manage your time, you can shift most of the activities out of Quadrant I into this quadrant.

For example, if you have an important presentation coming up, you can prepare for it ahead of time rather than leaving it to the last minute.

This is the quadrant where the productive person spends most of his/her time. These are the tasks that are most critical to achieving success. Unfortunately, these tasks are often neglected until they become urgent forcing the person to spend more time than necessary in Quadrant I.

Quadrant II tasks include:

  • planning and preparation;
  • project planning and scheduling;
  • research and investigation;
  • thinking and creating;
  • modelling, designing, testing;
  • systems and process development;
  • anticipative, preventative activities or communication; and
  • developing strategy.

Quadrant III. Urgent but Not Important – “Manage” or “Interruptions”

This quadrant contains the interruptions that occur throughout the day, such as:

  • trivial requests from others;
  • apparent emergencies;
  • ad-hoc interruptions and distractions;
  • misunderstandings appearing as complaints;
  • pointless routines or activities;
  • accumulated unresolved trivia; and
  • boss’s whims or tantrums.

Whenever possible, one needs to delegate the task or politely reject and explain to the requesting party why the task should not be done. Delegation might not involve delegating the task to another individual, but rather delegating it to a different communication medium or time (if your explanation for the lack of importance falls on deaf ears.)

Of course, some interruptions ARE important (e.g., customers chatting via Zendesk). These interruptions do not fall into this quadrant. They fall into either quadrant I or II, depending upon the urgency of the issue.

Quadrant IV. Not Urgent and Not Important – “Resist and Cease” or “Distractions”

This quadrant contains the issues that are neither important nor urgent. This quadrant contains things like:

  • LOL messages from friends/colleagues;
  • daydreaming, doodling, over-long breaks;
  • reading nonsense or irrelevant material;
  • unnecessary adjusting equipment etc.; and
  • embellishment and over-production

Businessballs.com says:

These activities are not tasks, they are habitual comforters which provide a refuge from the effort of discipline and proactivity. These activities affirm the same ‘comfort-seeking’ tendencies in other people; a group or whole department all doing a lot of this quadrant 4 activity creates a non-productive and ineffective organizational culture.

These activities have no positive outcomes, and are therefore demotivating. Often they may be stress related, so consider why you do these things and if there’s a deeper root cause address it.

The best method for ceasing these activities, and for removing temptation to gravitate back to them, is to have a clear structure or schedule of tasks for each day, which you should create in quadrant 2.

The Urgent-Important Matrix and Prioritization

Recall that increased productivity results when one is able to consistently produce a lot of high quality work in less time than others given a consistent set of tools. One of the key skills needed to be productive is the ability to effectively manage time. The Urgent-Important Matrix is a valuable tool for prioritization, a key element of effective time management.

The quadrants in the matrix clearly provide the relative prioritization of tasks.

  • Quadrant I (Important and Urgent) is the highest priority. Do these tasks now/first.
  • Quadrant II (Important but Not Urgent) is the next priority. Do these tasks next/second.
  • Quadrant III (Not Important but Urgent) is the last priority. If you are going to do these tasks at all, do them last.
  • Quadrant IV (not important and not urgent) contains tasks that are non-priority tasks. Don’t do them at all.

One of the most fundamental skills needed for effectively prioritizing tasks is the ability to assess importance and urgency.

Assessing Importance

When assessing importance, the first step is to assess if the activity/task is important at all. There are any number of ways to assess the importance of an activity, but they pretty much all come down to asking yourself: “What will happen if I DON’T do this?”

If the answer is that there will be a real business impact, then the activity IS important. If there is no appreciable business impact, the activity is not important and you can pretty much stop there.

If the activity is important, the next step is to determine HOW important it is. This answer can be formulated based on multiple dimensions. Don’t get carried away here – you don’t need to write a dissertation on every aspect of the activity. To effectively prioritize, you just need to understand the importance relative to other tasks.

Assessing Urgency

Just as important as assessing importance is the ability to assess urgency. The following table provides information on how to categorize urgency.

  • The damage caused by the Incident increases rapidly.
  • Work that cannot be completed by staff is highly time sensitive.
  • A minor Incident can be prevented from becoming a major Incident by acting immediately.
  • Several users with VIP status are affected.
  • The damage caused by the Incident increases considerably over time.
  • A single user with VIP status is affected.
  • The damage caused by the Incident only marginally increases over time.
  • Work that cannot be completed by staff is not time sensitive.

Prioritization Summary

When prioritizing tasks, first evaluate the importance and urgency of each task.

Categorize tasks according to the urgent/important matrix.

If multiple tasks fall into a single quadrant, organize them according to urgency and importance. Most of the time it will become clear which activities should be handled first within a quadrant. If you still aren’t sure, ask your manager.


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