Take five minutes: how to prioritize your commitments with the “Important and Urgent” matrix

By Susan April 6, 2015 18:37

Take five minutes: how to prioritize your commitments with the “Important and Urgent” matrix


Take five minutes

In this series I want to encourage you to take just five minutes out of your busy day to set yourself up for bigger, better success.

People wonder how they can make their dreams come true: very often, it’s a matter of working out a way of making a small dent in a big ambition, putting the right systems in place, and making sure that it’s easy for these systems to work.

I will share my own systems, so that you can test them and see whether they work for you.

If you want to share a five-minute system with my readers or give me feedback on how this is working for you, tweet me @SusanHayes_

Remember, it only takes five minutes, right now, to change the course of history – your history at least!


Decide what is important and what is urgent


The following 5-minute strategy gives you a 10,000 ft view of your day-to-day. This tool, also known as “the Eisenhower matrix”, is simply a quadrant that gives you clarity and shows you how to prioritize what you should be working on right now.

How to prioritize and banish overwhelm with the Important and Urgent matrix

How to prioritize and banish overwhelm with the Important and Urgent matrix

To fill in the “Important and Urgent” matrix:

1. Take a blank sheet of paper

and trace a vertical line across the middle of the width, then trace a horizontal line across the middle of the length. You end up with a “cross” in the middle of your sheet and four quadrants.


2. The vertical line is the axis for “Urgent”,

from “not very urgent” (bottom half), to “very urgent” (upper half). The horizontal line is the axis for “Important”, from “not very important” (left side half) to “very important” (right side half). This gives you the following quadrants:

  • “not important, not urgent”;
  • “urgent but not important”;
  • “urgent and important”;
  • “important but not urgent”.


3. List all your current projects and commitments,

especially those with deadlines attached. Distribute them into the different quadrants, according to how important and urgent they are. “Urgent” is defined simply as “how far away into the future is the deadline”. “Important” is defined as “how big would the impact be if I completed this task or achieved this ambition?”

Things like answering email are urgent but not so important (depending on the reason for the communication), things like spending time with your family, health and fitness, or working on a big project that might bring you a promotion are very often very important but not so urgent, as they don’t have a specific deadline.


4. You can do this exercise as a quick organising “fix”

to gain clarity on a very busy day. Then you can list only the most pressing projects and use the matrix to establish priorities and get back a sense of control. When everything seems ultra-urgent and you’re wondering how to prioritize, mapping it all out like this can get your day back on track.


5. But you can also spend more time on the matrix

and use it as a kind of “life compass”. Brainstorm all the projects and commitments you can think of, and add them to your matrix. Don’t forget “someday” projects that keep being pushed back further and further away as you never seem to have time for them. Find a place in the matrix for each of these items, depending on how urgent and important they are. This matrix is a simple, low-tech but very effective tool for self-reflection. To know how to prioritize, you should first establish what are the truly important things in your life. (Related: to explore what is “important” and could have the most impact in your business, use the Wheel of Strategy)


6. You are now able to see what

in your life, right now, is “urgent and important”, “urgent but not important”, “important but not urgent”, “neither important nor urgent”. “Urgent and important” gets priority. “Urgent but not important” can hopefully be delegated, or perhaps you can tackle those items in a short “productivity blitz” using a timer for example. “Neither urgent nor important” should be dropped as they really don’t seem to make a difference.


7. If you are using the matrix to organise a busy day,

focus on the items in the “urgent and important” quadrant first and, as much as you can, tackle them one after the other.


8. If you are using the matrix to organise your life,

think in terms of systems: how can you get rid of the “neither important nor urgent” commitments? Can you put a system in place to delegate the “urgent but not important”? And more importantly, how can you put a deadline on the “important but not urgent” so that it becomes both important and urgent?

That’s it!


“Mmhh… But everything is important and urgent!

Everything needs to get done yesterday!”


That’s exactly why you need the “Important and urgent” matrix! If you suffer from a feeling of overwhelm, if you’re constantly stressed out that everything is slipping through your fingers, the matrix helps, because it gives you a framework to weigh the relative importance and urgency of everything.

It’s quite likely that there are things on your to-do list that are not, or less, important and can be downgraded in the matrix. Just because something is urgent, doesn’t mean it’s important: it’s because you find it difficult to get perspective when you feel overwhelmed and stressed out.

At first you might feel very uncomfortable when you have to decide between two action items and downgrade one of them. The less productive alternative is flitting between the two of them without making a meaningful impact on either of them.

But that’s what it means to prioritise. You might find it difficult in the beginning, but when you realise

  • how much lighter you feel,
  • how much quicker things get done when you’re not overheating and constantly putting out fires,
  • how much more productive you are,

you will see immense benefit, both psychologically and as you course through your list of things to do.

For now you’re choosing which action item to tackle first: the second one will still be there waiting for you when you’re done with the first.


Why should you do this exercise?


1. To gain perspective and clarity when you feel overwhelmed, and regain a sense of control by establishing priorities.

2. To keep an eye on “important but not urgent” items: things like spending time with your family, health and fitness, and working to reach the next level in your career can’t be postponed indefinitely.

If you do postpone them, life will pass you by, and this is tragic. When I was an employee, I could have said “Creating a business? I’ll think about it later”. I can’t help but be sad when I think The Positive Economist might never have been, the Savvy Guides might never have got written, and the #SavvyTeenAcademy might never have been launched.

This is why the matrix is such a great tool: it helps you see when something “important but not urgent” needs a little bit of attention to become “important and urgent”. To effect this change, think of the “T” element of SMART goals: can you give this important item a date in your diary? When you write down “Monday 6pm to 7pm: brainstorm ideas to get promotion or create business” or “Friday 7pm to 10pm: date night with spouse – DO NOT DISTURB”, you make the time in your life for the truly important things.

In essence, every time you make space in your diary for something that is truly important for you, you’re making an appointment with your future. Keep those appointments – meet your future right here, right now and watch it become reality!


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By Susan April 6, 2015 18:37