The Pitfalls of Prioritization and How to Avoid Them

This article first appeared on Alpha Efficiency Magazine: Issue 3: Organizing, subscribe and buy here

There’s an oft-referenced quote, attributed to Dwight D. Eisenhower, who is said to have remarked:

What is important is seldom urgent, and what is urgent is seldom important.

I’ve been trying desperately to find some more information about the origins of this quote but unfortunately, there appears to be scant information about when, where and in what context Eisenhower made this remark.  It may even be a productivity urban legend!

Whether correctly attributed or not, Eisenhower’s purported premise, later popularized by Steven Covey in his books First Things First and The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is that we do our best work when we are clear about the urgency and importance of what we’re choosing to tackle.  In his books, Covey proposes a matrix that can be used to illustrate the distribution of tasks in your system against these axes:

Ignore the Experts – They’re Doing it Wrong

Despite the advice of some time management gurus and websites, the literal application of this matrix as a “task manager” (writing all your tasks down in each quadrant and attacking them in sequence) is rarely an adequate approach for getting the most out of the Urgent/Important matrix.

Used properly, a matrix is a powerful tool for introspection and ongoing analysis. By using it to improve your understanding of how effectively you prioritize your work, you can learn to embed this approach into your mental organizing toolkit and ultimately begin to prioritize at the point of collection.

Defining Urgent vs Important

To understand how to apply this concept, it is first necessary to have a firm grasp of what is meant by Urgent and Important.

Urgent

I find some of the dictionary definitions of Urgent unsatisfactory for the purpose of this discussion. Take, for example, the Oxford Dictionaries definition:

Requiring immediate action or attention.

This is perhaps what Urgent should mean, and what many people think it means, but how many tasks or actions in your daily life require immediate action or attention?  Strictly speaking, Merriam Webster has defined an emergency – something that requires you to prioritize it above everything else.  By definition, something that requires immediate attention must be attended to first, and you, therefore, cannot have two of those items on your list at any given time.

I prefer Oxford Dictionaries’ alternative definition:

Something to be done or arranged in response to a pressing or critical situation.

Now we’re getting somewhere.  By introducing the notion of the pressing or critical situation, we’re recognizing that the notion of Urgent is quite often characterized by how badly somebody else wants us to do it, and the proximity of the effect of the task not being complete.  Urgency under this definition becomes much more subjective and it’s easier to understand why people struggle to assess it correctly.

Important

Oxford Dictionaries and many others appear to be in broad agreement that important can be defined as:

Something of great significance or value.

Though the challenge under that definition is to explore how we ascertain what value is, and how to measure it.  Are tasks important based purely on their monetary value? Personal advancement? The benefit to the community?

Oxford Dictionaries go on to add:

Likely to have a profound effect on success, survival or well-being.

This extra qualification starts to get to the crux of how important influences prioritization; namely the consequences of this task being performed (or not).  We understand by this that important tasks will have a significant impact on the advancement of our personal or shared goals. In fact, important derives from the medieval Latin importantem, meaning “to be significant in.”

Thus we can consider those items in our daily lives that are important as those whose consequences will have a significant impact on our success (or rather, on the achievement of your goals). Urgent tasks are those where the pressures of outside forces will yield an imminent (but unquantified) consequence.

The Characteristics of the Quadrant Lurkers

At this point, it becomes easy to see why we’re naturally pretty good at dealing with items that are both Urgent and Important.  It’s because it’s relatively easy to recognize things that are of imminent consequence that we believe will have a significant impact on our personal or shared goals. For example:

If I do a great job on this report and get it in today, I’ve got a real shot at that promotion.

A clear example of an Urgent and Important task.

The Urgent/Important matrix does not teach us a great deal about our ability to prioritize tasks that are both urgent and important. For most people, this sense of self-preservation or advancement is quite strong and these tasks are prioritized intuitively. It may, however, help us to identify if we are guilty of cultivating too many urgent & important tasks; a symptom of taking too much on and not saying “no” appropriately.

Where the matrix becomes more powerful is in understanding our natural tendencies to prioritize tasks in the other three quadrants, where the imperative is less clear:

Quadrant 2 (Not Urgent, Important)

In an ideal world, this is the quadrant that should be occupying most of your time.  When you’re working on tasks in this quadrant you’re moving towards your goals, but the urgency of the tasks has not yet reached a point where you’re pressured or rushed. It’s common for people to have numerous tasks in this quadrant, but not to be working on many of them.

Watch out for: Be critical of whether the tasks in this quadrant are truly “important.”  Many of us will tend to overstate the importance of a task, which will cause the quadrant to become bloated.

Quadrant 3 (Urgent/Not Important)

This can be a tough one to get your head around. Reflect on our previous definition: these are tasks with a short-term consequence of small significance to your overall goals.  Book tickets for the concert might be urgent if the tickets will sell out fast, but may not be important (unless you’ve made a commitment to go to a friend or family member). Similarly, bid for the novelty toothbrush on eBay has a finite time constraint, but unless the toothbrush has significant value to you it’s unlikely that the consequences of failing to meet the task will be small. Individuals who focus too much on this quadrant tend can find themselves operating in a way that feels reactive, short-term and lacking in long-term focus.

Watch out for: Don’t let too many people push their priorities onto you. Things that are important to others but not to you can swallow large chunks of time. Be judicious about agreeing to those things that are of shared importance (if it’s important to you, it’s important to me.)

Quadrant 4 (Not Urgent, Not Important)

You’d be forgiven for thinking that this quadrant should always be empty, but this quadrant often contains the leisure and relaxation activities vital to a happy, balanced and productive life.  You could tie yourself up in knots about whether this makes them more “important”, but I think it’s useful to understand that although the consequences of not doing these activities are often trivial, for true happiness and fulfillment everybody should be spending at least a little time in Quadrant 4.

I should point out that there are no hard and fast rules about what good looks like in terms of how your tasks are distributed amongst these quadrants.  It can be tempting to think that each quadrant represents an opportunity to “fix” your tasks and priorities in order to achieve some kind of perfect formula for productive prioritization.

As with any tool, the quadrant can only help you to take a step back, consider all your tasks and whether you’re managing the balance of important, urgent and non-urgent tasks in the most effective way.  Looking for clusters and patterns is a good way to spot trends in the kinds of commitment you are taking on, and whether you’re currently making objective assessments of the tasks in terms of their urgency and importance.

It can be tempting to think that each quadrant represents an opportunity to “fix” your tasks and priorities in order to achieve some kind of perfect formula for productive prioritization.

The Shortcomings of the Urgent/Important Matrix

I’ve already mentioned that the matrix can’t be applied simply as a substitute for other methods of organizing your tasks; the main reason for this is that it fails to take into account any dimension of difficulty or energy levels required to do particular tasks. Take my daughter to the doctor and solve world poverty might both, in theory, exist in the Urgent/Important quadrant, but it’s easy to see that your ability to work on world poverty at any given point is going to be constrained by a number of other factors, not least your current energy levels.

In the example above you’ll also note that there’s no sense of priority within each quadrant; you might have an intuitive sense of what’s most important (taking your kid to the doctor is number one, a no-brainer perhaps) but for many a process of more detailed prioritization will be needed, which the matrix can’t offer on its own.

Embedding the matrix into your Organizing process

Whether you do it in your head, on paper or electronically, having a view of how the tasks you’re currently working on mapped to the Urgent/Important matrix can help you take a snapshot assessment of where the key pressure points are currently, and where they might build up in the future.

A more powerful application of the tool is to be able to start making more mindful assessments of the tasks coming in as you start to make decisions about how to treat them – the decision* stage of Organizing as we describe it in CORE.  If you can make a quick urgency/importance assessment initially, it may influence the destination of your task and ultimately when and how you go about acting on it.

The final aspect of applying the matrix is about taking a much more introspective look at the matrix over an extended period – in which quadrant do the majority of your tasks belong?  Is this a nature of the tasks you’re inclined to take on, or of the way you assess their relative urgency and importance?  This kind of long-term self-analysis can be used as a feedback mechanism in order to make adjustments to the commitments you make and the techniques you apply when prioritizing and actioning tasks.

If you bear in mind that the matrix is a tool, not a solution, learning to use it in these three contexts can have a marked improvement on your ability to assign a value to the tasks you organize every day and to help you establish a clear and innate understanding of the relative priority of each one.