In light of our always-on world, it’s natural we focus on time-sensitive tasks; the seemingly non-ending list of things that have to be done. At work, these tasks include responding to emails or voice mails, generating a report due later in the day, or attending a mandatory meeting. In your personal life, it might include getting gas when your tank is almost empty, paying a bill, or even stopping on the way home to get something for dinner. A former colleague of mine used to call this the tyranny of the urgent.
While there will always be urgent tasks to deal with, we must be vigilant when faced with urgent decisions. Decisions made in the spur of the moment are rarely as impactful as those with enough time for careful consideration. While I’m definitely not advocating paralysis by analysis, I do believe you should prioritize both tasks and decisions by importance rather than urgency.
Important decisions are more strategic. They tend to have longer term impact, even if they don’t have short term effects. Psychologically, important decisions are often put off because we are worried that we might not make the right decision. Instead todo lists are littered with urgent but less important tasks.
As a result, we run out of time for things that are important but not urgent.
One approach to avoid this incorrect prioritization is to use the Eisenhower Matrix. The Eisenhower Matrix is a two-by-two grid that characterizes decisions/tasks by both urgency and importance:I update my decision matrix weekly, sometimes more frequently during high-intensity periods. First, I focus my items on the upper left-hand quadrant – items that are important and urgent – making time to work on them as soon as possible. If there is a large number of items in this quadrant, I know something systematic has gone wrong: either I’ve taken on too many responsibilities or I’ve been working on the wrong things.
Given my role, I usually delegate the urgent and unimportant items (bottom left). It’s key to recognize importance is subjective; it might not be important for me to personally decide but that doesn’t mean it isn’t important to resolve. By delegating, I free up my own time and empower someone else to make a decision.
The previous two steps ensure there is time for items which are important but not urgent (upper right). These are items that many people overlook or just never get to. I schedule specific timeslots to work on them and, when that time comes, make sure it’s protected from the tyranny of the urgent.
The Eisenhower Matrix isn’t perfect – the nature of work means that sometimes you’re forced to work on seemingly unimportant tasks – but it’s highly effective. I recommend you try it for a few weeks, especially if you’re in a situation in which you’re struggling to manage your time. It may change how you work.