Your boss, Vice President of IT, has asked you to prepare an important presentation for a critical meeting. The CEO and all US VPs will be present and you feel honored, you know the subject matter well, although you are a little surprised to be chosen.

But then your mind starts racing… you only have a few days to put the presentation together, your workload is already high, you have a number of other “urgent” tasks on your to-do list, and your parents are arriving to stay for a week tomorrow.

You feel anxious, you struggle to concentrate, you start to wonder if he is testing you? “Show me you can deliver under pressure, Jayne!” Imposter syndrome starts to creep in… “Can I do this? Not sure I can?”

We have all been there, or at least in a similar stressful situation.

Time stressors are the most pervasive source of pressure and stress in the workplace, and they happen as a result of having too much to do, in too little time. The struggle with prioritizing is real!

How can you manage this stress, and successfully deliver what matters most?

The first step is to decipher your priorities. The Urgent vs Important Matrix helps you review your priorities and determine which activities are important and which are, essentially, distractions or can wait.

“So often in our busy days we attend to things to get them off our plate. It is often subconscious and probably an instinct, survival tactic as we try to keep on top of things at work. The challenge to that approach is the stuff we attend to may not be the most impactful – we need an easy strategy to help us to stop, think and prioritize.” says Jayne Jenkins, Churchill Leadership Group’s CEO and Executive Coach

In this Churchill article, we’ll look at how you can use the Urgent vs Important Matrix to manage time and your “to-do” list effectively. Excellent time (and energy) management means being effective and efficient. To achieve your goals you must spend time on things that are important and not just urgent. To minimize the stress of too many tight deadlines, it’s important to understand this distinction:

  • IMPORTANT activities have an outcome that leads to the achievement of your goals (professional or personal).
  • URGENT activities that demand immediate attention and are often associated with achieving someone else’s goals.

Unfortunately, urgent activities are often the activities we concentrate our time on; they demand attention because the consequences of not dealing with them are immediate.

This Urgent vs Important matrix has been attributed to former US President Eisenhower as well as referenced by Stephen Covey. “What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important,” sums up the concept perfectly. This Eisenhower Principle is how Eisenhower organized his tasks and Covey brought the idea into the mainstream in his 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

How to Use the Urgent vs Important Matrix Tool

The matrix is a powerful yet simple way of thinking about priorities. Simple is important for it to be repeatable and not add more complexity to your already overwhelming to-do list!

It helps you overcome the natural tendency to focus on urgent activities, so you can clear enough time to focus on what’s important to you. This is the way you move from “fire-fighting” to a position where you can grow your business/career. Here’s how it works: The matrix can be drawn (figure 1) with the dimensions of Important and Urgent.

Follow the steps below to use the matrix to prioritize your activities:

  1. Have your SMART goals defined, with their timeframe (ie are they your SMART goals for the year of the quarter etc.). Have them written down in front of you. These will help you prioritize your activities.
  2. Then separately list all the activities and projects that you feel you have to do. Include everything that takes up your time at work, however unimportant. If you use “to-do” lists you should have this information already.
  3. On a scale of 1-5 (5 is highly important) assign importance to each activity. Remember, this is a measure of how important the activity is in helping you meet your SMART goals. Your goals should be your guiding light.
  4. Evaluate each activity’s urgency (1-5, based on the time frame of your goals ie the year or quarter etc). Then plot each activity on the matrix according to the values that you’ve given it.
  5. Now study the matrix using the strategies described below to schedule your priorities (maybe in your calendar) and organize your time.
decision making using important verse urgent matrix

Strategies for Different Quadrants of the Matrix

Activities in your IMPORTANT AND URGENT quadrant  – There are two distinct types of urgent and important activities: Ones that you could not foresee (ie your presentation opportunity from your VP) and others that you’ve left to the last minute. Avoid last-minute activities by planning and avoid procrastinating.

However, such issues and crises cannot always be foreseen. Therefore, leave some unscheduled time in your schedule to handle unexpected important activities. If you have a lot of urgent and important activities, identify which could have been foreseen and think about how you could schedule such activities ahead of time to prevent the “pile-up.” Prioritize your schedule with these activities first – these are the critical building blocks on your calendar. Minimize or block interruptions during those scheduled times.

NOT IMPORTANT AND URGENT – These activities are things that stop you achieving your goals and prevent you from completing your work. Do these tasks need to be done at all? If yes, can they be delayed/rescheduled or delegated? A common source of such interruptions is from other people. Sometimes it’s appropriate to say “no” politely and effectively or to encourage them to solve the problem for themselves (see blog article “Managers Use Your Strengths To Avoid the Monkey” to help you do this). Alternatively, try scheduling time when you are available (aka set open hours) and communicate that so they don’t keep interrupting you. Open hours could be a scheduled regular meeting when many needs and issues on your team can be dealt with at the same time).

IMPORTANT NOT URGENT – These activities help you achieve your goals. Make sure to have plenty of time to do these things properly, so they do not become urgent. Remember to leave enough time to deal with unforeseen problems to keep you on schedule.

NOT IMPORTANT NOT URGENT – These activities are your distraction and should be avoided. Some can simply be ignored or canceled. Others are activities other people may want you to do, but don’t contribute to your own desired outcomes. Learn to say no politely and effectively, that means explain the why. If people see you are clear about your objectives and boundaries they will not ask you to do unimportant activities in the future. Respect for you will likely go up!

3 more Churchill tips: Ask yourself:

  • Am I adding important/urgent tasks to my to-do list that I could instead delegate to help my team grow?
  • Am I seeing a pattern in a team member who is coming to me with urgent issues too often? If yes, coach them to manage their time more effectively.
  • Can I effectively say “no” to others and still preserve the relationship? If not, Churchill can help with that too!

Our Churchill Leadership Group coaching team hopes this approach provides you value. If you need more Leadership and Team Development support please reach out to us.

We offer a variety of leadership solutions including executive coaching services, team development solutions and leader as great coach training.

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About Jayne
For decades, Jayne learned to develop and engage leaders and teams in the corporate world and then went on to train as an Executive and Strengths Coach. During her corporate leadership tenure, she observed how much untapped talent existed and she is passionate about unleashing that talent for individual and organizational performance and growth. Jayne and her global Churchill team of over 200+ coaches and consultants partner with clients to provide solutions that build capability through harnessing strengths. Her certifications include: Executive Coach (PCC) Gallup CliftonStrengths®, Certified Team Performance Coach (CTPC™), Marcus Buckingham Co. Stand Out, PROSCI® Change Management Consultant and Conversational Intelligence®. Global clients include eBay, PayPal, AMEX, Cardinal Health, BMS, Biogen, Coca-Cola, and many more.

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