How can you tell if something is important?

It’s not as easy as it may seem. I’ve met plenty of people that either think everything is important or nothing is. Have you ever had that co-worker that marks every email “urgent?” Or known that friend that gets a call from a family member in the hospital and lets it go to voice mail?

I’ve had both. Lots of people just aren’t great at prioritizing.

Many of us aren’t quite so extreme, but think we’re doing a good job deciding what’s important on a day-to-day basis while actually still getting pulled into the weeds. Emails come in, phone calls, people knocking on your door. Meanwhile you have projects, priorities, things on your to-do list. And that’s just your responsibilities! What about your ambitions, your goals, the things you do to improve yourself and move beyond just treading water? How do you figure out which of those things need to happen, and in what order?

There’s a pretty simple method that I really love – though don’t confuse “simple” with “easy,” by any stretch. It’s called the Eisenhower Method, because ol’ Ike had a pretty efficient time management system (though he didn’t claim to actually invent this one, it’s just inspired by him). It basically divides all possible tasks into one of 4 categories, based on where that task falls in relation to two binary descriptors. Any given task is either time-sensitive or it isn’t (Urgent/Not Urgent), and it either has big consequences or it doesn’t (Important/Unimportant). That gives us four possible combinations, arranged like this:

Image result for blank eisenhower matrix"

That means for any task that comes in, you just have to ask two questions, and then you can put that task in the appropriate box. After that, you can have pre-set ways you treat each box.

The first question is, “Is this time-sensitive?” The definition of that term can be different for different people – different things are time-sensitive for a surgeon than for an accountant. But whatever time means to you, you should define “sensitive” in terms of regular intervals, and update your matrix at those intervals. For instance, you could update your matrix once a day, each morning when you get to work. In that case, a task whose outcome won’t change whether you do it today or tomorrow isn’t time-sensitive according to the scale you’ve set. Note that just because it isn’t time-sensitive doesn’t mean it isn’t important! But it’s a good idea to separate the two, and you’ll see why.

The next question is whether or not the task has big consequences. Again, you have to define this, but there are plenty of solid ways to do so. One way is simply a monetary question – how much money do you stand to make or lose based on this task? Anything above a certain threshold gets marked “important.” But there are plenty of other measurements – just be honest with yourself. How many other people get screwed if I don’t do this thing? How many days do we lose? How much cookie dough gets wasted? Whatever threshold you pick, be honest about it.

Okay, now based on the answers to those questions, you have a box for each task. Lots of people just default to putting everything in that top left box, but if everything is critical then nothing is, and you’ve done nothing to prioritize your day. Meanwhile, if tasks are actually in their proper boxes, you can do what you need to:

  • Important & Urgent: Do first.
  • Important & Not Urgent: Do next. Each [time increment], move things to first box.
  • Unimportant & Urgent: KILL IT WITH FIRE (or delegate, you know).
  • Unimportant & Not Urgent: Give to other people to train on.

See the trick? The trick is to just not do the stuff in the bottom two boxes. This whole matrix is just a way to help you clarify what belongs there.

The things that are “unimportant but urgent” are the things you should avoid doing as much as possible. Delegate, outsource, automate. Turn your phone off, or close your email tab for a few hours. Install a chat bot, hire an assistant. Whatever the solution is, find it – because that quadrant will kill you otherwise.

The things that are neither urgent nor important are dead weight. If they don’t matter, don’t put the same resources towards them as you to towards the things that do. That doesn’t mean they’re completely useless – they’re great training fodder. If you want to duplicate yourself, that’s a great bank of tasks to give someone to train on, because the stakes are low and they have time to figure it out.

(Pro tip: If you’re a parent, these are great tasks for your kids.)

One last tip: If you’re dividing up your tasks, every box should have something in it. If you don’t think you have any tasks that are neither urgent nor important, you’re calibrated incorrectly. Something goes in every box – or you’re ignoring something important about your life.

One thought on “Urgency

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