Sorting out priorities with the Urgency-Importance Matrix

Here we all are after the festive break with lots of good intentions for getting things done in this bright New Year. Coaches have good intentions, and so do their coachees. Yet how often do those good intentions fall by the wayside?

Woman surrounded by arrowsThere can be a whole host of reasons for good intentions going out of focus pretty quickly. Here I’m going to look at circumstances where the impulse to do something is genuinely there, but it gets drowned out by everything else that may be going on in our lives. We lose our sense of priorities.

You know I’m not one for pulling out a coaching tool for no reason, especially if it’s complicated. So the fact that this post is about the Urgency-Importance Matrix should give you a clue that I think it’s not only really useful, but also really easy to use.

Let’s look at what the Urgency-Importance Matrix is, then check out two specific work-based coaching scenarios where I’ve found it priceless.

The Urgency-Importance Matrix

The Urgency-Importance Matrix is so named because it’s ideal for separating out things that are urgent/important from things that are, well, not urgent/not important. On a good day, when we’re relaxed and optimistic, we might think such a task is easy to undertake. But what about when we’re overwhelmed with pressing things to think about and do in our personal and work lives that make achieving those distinctions very difficult? It’s at such times that a tool like the Matrix comes into its own.

PDF iconThe format of the Matrix is so simple that you can draw it on the back of an envelope. It’s basically a big rectangle divided up into four equal parts. If you want to check it out, click on the PDF icon to take a look.

The point here is that the Matrix allows us to think clearly about and record our decisions on whether things we think we need to do are:

  • important and urgent
  • important and not urgent
  • urgent and not important
  • not urgent and not important

If that’s starting to sound a little confusing, here are some examples of which kinds of activities might fit into each of those categories. However, as you read, bear in mind the fact that everyone will value each activity differently. The same thing may well be much more important to someone else than it is to us.

  • Important and Urgent  – things like sudden crises, pressing problems, deadline-driven projects which directly relate to us, or (if they relate to other people) really need our input.
  • Important and Not Urgent – things like building relationships, recognising new opportunities, planning, recreation, and prevention. By ‘recreation’ I mean things that make us feel better about ourselves, not things that on reflection we recognise as being just a waste of time (‘Not Urgent and Not Important’). And by ‘prevention’ I’m referring to thinking about things that it’s reasonable to believe can and may go wrong – which isn’t negativity unless it’s part of a mindset that’s prone to fearing absolutely everything has potential to go pear-shaped.
  • Urgent and Not Important – things like interruptions or immediate pressing matters that are important to someone else but not you; some phone calls, mail, reports or meetings; and popular activities such as going out for a drink (if they don’t class as being genuinely useful and/or make you feel better about yourself).
  • Not Urgent and Not Important – things like trivia, some mail, some phone calls, people that are time-wasters, or pleasant activities that aren’t included in ‘Important and Not Urgent’.

Handwritten word 'important'When thinking about this, we’re not encouraging ourselves or anyone else to be antisocial or unresponsive to the needs of others. The point is to be genuinely clear on what’s really urgent or important to the particular individual concerned. Things that are on aggregate judged ‘Urgent and Not Important’ shouldn’t necessarily be ignored. Some thought can be put into how they can be delegated to someone else, or dealt with in some other way. Similarly, when deciding whether something is ‘Not Urgent and Not Important’, we can have a conversation with ourselves about why we’re putting time into things that don’t matter to us or anyone else.

A key aspect of using the Matrix is remembering to schedule one activity each week from the category ‘Important and Not Urgent’. Why? Because these usually really matter to us strategically, but can get sidelined by the crises and pressing issues we usually find ourselves contending with. If we know what’s in this category and move just one item forward per week, we’re going some way to ensuring we’re taking care of what’s really important to us in the medium to long term.

Two coaching scenarios

The Urgency-Importance Matrix may be simple, but it’s very powerful. I’ve found in some circumstances it can play a key role in allowing coachees to find flexible, effective ways of dealing with their issues. Here are two examples.

1. Help! I’m inundated!

Sometimes a coachee has no idea what to prioritise, being practically buried beneath a slew of conflicting tasks and duties. Such an individual may present with what he or she believes are time management problems and/or stress. Whilst time management skills may indeed be lacking, in my experience careful listening and probing can on occasion reveal that a coachee is being expected to take on far more work than one person can reasonably manage. A friend or colleague of the coachee might commiserate and collude in blaming ‘management’, but as coaches we need to suspend judgement. We need to have an open mind and try to find out what’s actually going on.

Male silhouette with stress wordsA first step is for the coachee to list all the tasks and duties that need to be undertaken. Doing this in a supportive coaching setting can ensure that the exercise doesn’t end in deepening a coachee’s despair. Once the list is complete, it’s time to sketch out a simple Urgency-Importance Matrix and to encourage the coachee to assess each item on the list in order to categorise it in terms of urgency and importance – as far as she or he is concerned.

Discussion of the result may reveal any number of possibilities. Is the coachee a perfectionist who holds him or herself to unrealistic standards, meaning a task is never finished? Or a ‘people pleaser’ who finds it impossible to say an assertive ‘no’ to additional tasks? Or does the coachee have a bully as a manager, or report to several individuals, each of whom treats her or him as if she or he is working only for that one individual?

Whatever transpires to be the case, frank discussion can explore how and why the coachee is being overloaded, as well as possible avenues the coachee feels comfortable to explore to help alleviate the situation.

2. My list is killing me!

What if we have a coachee who is methodical and organised – a consummate list maker who’s sense of satisfaction comes from ticking items off and watching each list shrink until it finally disappears? Scrumpled paper and penThere’s no problem with that, until the length of the list keeps growing instead of diminishing, leading to distress, procrastination and eventually sheer panic. Again, such a coachee may present with what she or he thinks are time management issues, and possibly feelings of inadequacy due to a perceived increasing inability to cope. More often than not discussion reveals that the beloved lists contain no mechanism of prioritisation, and it’s here that the Urgency-Importance Matrix comes into its own.

List-wielding coachees are usually more than half way to solving their own problems. They just need a nudge towards complementing the list-making with exercises in prioritisation. In my experience, passing the lists through the filter of the Matrix doesn’t make work disappear, but it certainly helps individuals focus on what’s really important to their own health, well-being and strategic plan. Having got the hang of categorising tasks according to urgency and importance criteria, the individual can then concentrate on delegating what really isn’t his or her concern to free up time and head space for what will move him or her forward.

These are only two scenarios, and I’m sure you can think of many more. The Urgency-Importance Matrix is a truly versatile tool. Why not let us know how you use it by commenting below?

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