The Urgent Important Matrix: What It Is and How to Use It
How many times have you been faced with a project that needs to get done now, or ASAP, or yesterday? (When are they going to figure out that whole time travel thing, anyway?)
It’s hard to prioritize a to-do list when it feels like all of your to-dos need to get done at the same time. That’s where the Urgent Important Matrix comes in. This handy little tool helps you set priorities, reduce context switching and ultimately be a whole more more efficient.
What Is the Urgent Important Matrix?
The Urgent-Important Matrix is also known as the Eisenhower Matrix. It originated with Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th U.S. President — as well as a U.S. Army general and NATO’s first supreme commander.
Needless to say, Eisenhower was constantly faced with hard choices and competing priorities, so he created his now-famous matrix to help him decide which tasks to focus on, depending on their urgency and their importance.
Understanding the Urgent-Important Matrix
First, let’s unpack the meaning of “urgent” and “important” in this context.
Urgent: Urgent tasks are the ones that cause us to pump the brakes on everything else. They require us to stop what we’re doing and turn our full attention to the task in questions.
Important: Important tasks bring us closer to achieving big-picture goals or objectives. Generally, a lot of strategy and planning goes into important tasks.
The Urgent-Important Matrix uses a four-quadrant grid to define tasks by their level of urgency and importance.
Quadrant 1: Do It (Now)
The first quadrant of the Urgent-Important Matrix is where we place tasks that are both urgent and important. If a task falls into Quadrant 1, that often means it has two things associated with it:
Deadlines: It’s pressing, time-sensitive work.
Consequences: If the work doesn’t get done, it’s going to be a problem.
Examples of tasks that fall into Quadrant 1:
Overdue client projects
Responding to customer emails
When you have too many tasks that fall into Quadrant 1, it causes stress and burnout and leads to frequent context switching —that is, you have 5 projects that are 50% done and can’t actually seem to get anything over the finish line.
Quadrant 2: Put It On The Calendar
Tasks that fall into Quadrant 2 are considered important but not urgent. That means they’ll get you closer to a specific goal or maybe help you work toward your overacting mission. They need to get done, but there isn’t a hard-and-fast deadline.
Examples of tasks that fall into Quadrant 2:
Strategy planning meeting
Quadrant 2 is a good place to spend your time. It puts you in control of important tasks so you can stay ahead of the game and focus on what matters most — before those things become urgent and drift into Quadrant 1 (where you feel like you’re putting out fires left and right).
When you operate mostly in Quadrant 2, that means Quadrant 1 is reserved only for those inevitable urgent, important tasks that you can’t always foresee or plan for.
Not only does that make you more productive and efficient; it also keeps you clear-headed and minimizes rash decision making.
Quadrant 3: Hand It Off
Tasks that fall into Quadrant 3 are urgent but not important. In other words, they have some kind of deadline or time sensitivity associated with them, but they may be somewhat trivial tasks that, if they don’t get done, aren’t going to do major harm. Generally, these tasks don’t require a ton of thought or planning. Day-to-day interruptions are lumped into this quadrant, too.
Examples of tasks that fall into Quadrant 3:
Blog posts or e-newsletters
“Pop-ins” from coworkers or side conversations in Slack
Unplanned (or pointless) meetings
Checking emails every time you get a notification
When you spend too much time in Quadrant 3, you feel like you’re on a hamster wheel. Whereas these tasks may not be quite as anxiety-producing as Quadrant 1 tasks, they still prevent you from feeling in control. Often, if you’re in Quadrant 3, you’re really focusing on others’ priorities instead of knocking out your own work.
There are three solutions to minimize the time you spend in Quadrant 3:
Delegate: Since many of the tasks here don’t require a special skill set — they just need to get done — pass off what you can. Of course, that doesn’t mean ignoring responsibilities. But if you’re sacrificing precious time that should be spent on important tasks, then it might make sense to, say, pull in a copywriter to churn out those blog posts.
Automate: There may be items in Quadrant 3 that don’t actually need an extra set of hands. Instead, there could be a way to automate them. For example: if you’re running weekly team 1:1s, leverage software that takes care of the repetitive administrative tasks and frees you up to focus on what really matters.
Get disciplined: Sometimes, you just have to say no. This is mostly in regards to those interruptions that seem unavoidable (but actually aren’t). Try snoozing Slack notifications when you need heads-down work time, or suggest turning an unnecessary meeting into an email exchange.
Quadrant 4: Trash It
Tasks that aren't urgent or important fall into Quadrant 4. They aren’t time sensitive, they don’t get you closer to your goal — and they suck up hours of your day, leaving you with very little accomplished. Bottom line: get the heck out of Quadrant 4.
Examples of tasks that fall into Quadrant 4:
Endless scrolling through social media
Pointless web browsing or online shopping
Any procrastination-related activities
To be fair: we all spend some of our time in Quadrant 4, and that’s okay. Mindless downtime activity can be a good thing, allowing our brains to reset and recharge. It becomes a problem when you’re spending an excessive amount of your day here — and it’s causing you to neglect tasks that are urgent, important or both.
If you want to get out of Quadrant 4, start being mindful about how you’re using your time. Try a time management app (or just make a spreadsheet) to track where the hours are going. If you find yourself doing a lot of project-avoidance tasks (you know, folding laundry instead of prepping for that board meeting) — practice some self-reflection and try to understand what’s causing you to put off your real priorities.
Bottom Line: Be Intentional
Intentionality is what lies at the heart of the Urgent-Important Matrix. Used correctly, it requires us to be thoughtful and realistic about what we can and should accomplish. It doesn’t mean you need to tear up your to-do list. Instead, start with the matrix, and use it as a guide to set your priorities, so you can focus on what really matters, when it really matters.