Do you have a feeling that you are constantly managing crises and putting some fires down? Or are you constantly exhausted and thinking that you don’t have time for yourself? Or perhaps you feel that you are constantly busy and yet you are not accomplishing anything?
If you answered positively on at least one of these questions, maybe you are having an issue prioritizing what is urgent and what is important in your life. The solution to this is hiding in a simple system called Urgent vs Important Matrix or the Eisenhower Management Matrix system. This system can help you to manage your time.
Looking at the four quadrants, you may be thinking that the main priority has the top left quadrant, where urgent and important things are happening. But the truth is a little more complicated. First, let’s define what happens in each of them.
Quadrant 1 - Urgent and Important
This quadrant is usually a source of stress and burnout.
Everything that suddenly pops up, every crisis or unplanned situation falls into this section. This is something that seeks your immediate attention or reaction. Something you have to start fixing as soon as possible or it could create more problems if not handled properly. For instance, your house is on fire and you need to react immediately. Or a less catastrophic example, you have a last-minute deadline and the client is putting pressure on you. There could be urgent emails to be answered, bug fixes, internal team issues, a broken tooth. These are the things that happen all the time, but with smart planning, you can prevent some of them. The goal is to spend as little time as possible doing things in this quadrant.
Quadrant 2 - Not Urgent and Important
This is the place of opportunities and planning. The place where you have control over things and where you are busy but not overwhelmed.
Important but not urgent things are all the things that do not have a deadline but are important for you when you are managing your time, both in your personal and professional life. Some of them could be exercising, family and friends gathering and nurturing relationships, planning the time, and setting goals. This also includes studying and planning personal development, going to regular health checkups, career or business planning. Or spending your time doing something you like as a hobby like reading or painting.
These are all important things that are not urgent, but if left neglected could easily slip to the first quadrant of your life - in urgent and important. For instance, if you go to your dentist on regular basis, you may prevent the decay of your teeth. Or if you learn and improve yourself daily, you will be more competent, may advance in your career, and avoid being fired.
You should spend most of your time doing things from this category. Make sure that most of your activities, at least 70% of them fall into this quadrant. It would make you more productive and in control of your life.
Quadrant 3 - Urgent and Not Important
These are usually things that can distract you from doing important things or slowing you down.
Most of the time, people fall into the trap of believing that they have to finish those tasks as soon as possible. The usual reason is that someone put a deadline on the request that was sent to you, and you did not priorities properly your current tasks. It is something that is urgent to someone else but comparing to your current tasks it could have less importance to you. For instance, you are preparing a proposal for an important enterprise client. The colleague calls you to ask for the report that he has to finish by the end of the day. You are dropping of writing a proposal and start writing the report for your colleague while risking losing the client.
The other examples could also be some interruptions, unimportant meetings, and events, random requests, phone calls from salesmen or telemarketers. All the other unimportant tasks consume your time. The solution could be in delegating these tasks to others. If that is not the option, you can put them off for a reasonable time and prioritize them for later.
Quadrant 4 - Not Urgent and Not Important
As you can conclude, not urgent and not important things are all activities that waste your time, such as watching television, surfing the internet, gossiping, etc. The idea is to eliminate all of these activities or at least limit them as much as possible. Sure, we all need some time to relax and do nothing, but these activities should not consume our time and distract us from important tasks.
What to do with it?
So, now when we know all of this, how can we implement and stay on top of things?
First, start tracking your activities during the day in the following week. Keep a journal and time-track everything that you have done during the day. This should cover things such as shopping, doing chores, emailing, working on projects, having coffee with your friend, spending time with your kid... After few days, you’ll notice some patterns in your behavior.
Once you have created the list of all activities, try to arrange them in each quadrant while asking yourself how important or urgent is the activity you had. By doing this you will have a visual presentation and breakdown of your week.
Start analyzing in which quadrant you are spending most of your time in and review your options here. Your main focus should be on Quadrant 2 and activities that fall down there. If you are spending too much time and energy in Quadrant 1, it is possible that you are burned out and exhausted. You can manage these things in a short period and you may want to consider proper planning (Quadrant 2) to prevent them from happening in the future again.
If your main activities are in Quadrant 4, it can be that you are procrastinating or wasting your time. Start cutting your time on these activities and replace them with more fulfilling activities from Quadrant 2. In case you are stuck in Quadrant 3, it could mean you lost your focus or you're not sure what your priorities really are. This brings us again to Quadrant 2 and smart planning. Start with delegating all unimportant tasks to someone else.
Remember, what you put in each quadrant is highly individual and depends on personal preferences. The key is to realize what is truly important to you so you can stay on track with your plans and goals. Distinguishing between urgent and important could help you in that.