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The Urgent and Important Grid

Dr Stephen Covey came up with a groundbreaking concept in his book "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People", and it has provided a vocabulary that has helped people understand the essential differentiation between urgent and important.

The concept is simple. Tasks that you carry out are either important or not important and urgent or not urgent. Before looking at the way that this concept can be used, it makes sense to spend a moment defining the terms. These may seem obvious, but I get a lot of questions about how to determine whether things are important or unimportant.

Urgent is one of the most movable of all concepts. Whether things are urgent often depends upon whether you allow them to be urgent or not. This depends upon setting expectations, personal management and a whole variety of other things that are discussed elsewhere.

Not Urgent is easy to define. There is no time pressure, and there is no apparent or obvious penalty for not getting the task done today. If you’ve read this far, you’ll know that categorizing things this way can be the most expensive mistake of all!

Important is also easy enough to define. These are things that are clearly worth our time and merit our attention. They need to get done, and will impact the value of what we accomplish.

Not Important is a little harder to define. My definition is that these are tasks that are below your pay grade. They may be important at some level, it's just not important that you do them. 

Every task in your day can be ranked and categorized by using the boxes on this grid: 

Urgent and Important: Top left contains things that are both urgent and important. This doesn't represent a Strategic Time Management problem, as these are things that need to get done. They are important and because they are urgent they are going to get taken care of.

Urgent and Not Important: Top right contains things that are urgent and calling out for attention, but they are not important for you to do. "Not Important" means, they are below your pay grade and do not belong in your day. They are urgent and call for attention, but not yours.

Not Urgent and Not Important: Bottom right finds us spending our time is on things that are neither urgent or important. These things have somehow found their way into our day and we tend to work on them for the easy, and often fictitious, view of progress that crossing them off our list provides.  

Not Urgent and Important: Bottom left is the key quadrant in The Time Edge. In this box lie the key activities that we should be doing that will make a difference in our business. Unfortunately we get to them last because we are driven by The Tyranny of The Urgent, and this box is where we need to spend more time.



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Time Management Tips

  • When somebody interrupts you when you are busy, don't let them interrupt your train of thought. Ask them to come back and see you at a specific time – you may be surprised that they actually figure out the answer and don't come back to ask you.

  • Everybody has about three hours during the day when they are at their best. Figure out what your "Prime Time" is and then plan your day around it. Make sure that you dedicate that time to focus without interruptions on the activities that are of most value to you.

  • It is all too easy to waste time on phone calls. Keep an egg timer next to the phone to keep track of exactly how long you are talking. It will keep the time you are spending in the forefront of your mind and will help you handle the call more efficiently.

  • Never go to the bank to deposit checks, it is a Time Bandit way below your pay grade, and claiming it is therapeutic and gets you out of the office is deluding yourself. Send somebody else!  Better still, get a check scanning machine...and make sure the bank pays!

  • Organize your office so the door isn't in your immediate line of vision. The big payoff is that people can't appear at your door, hover, catch your eye and distract you. If you make it harder to interrupt you, people may figure out answers themselves rather than asking you.

  • When you have to give out an e-mail address to somebody who's going to send you things you don't want in your inbox, give them a special "junk" e-mail address. Then set up a rule so that everything to that address goes to a folder you review on your timetable.

  • When somebody interrupts you to ask you a question always reply with a question back. Ask them how they would deal with it, and make them think proactively rather than just relying on you. A good technique is to ask: "If I wasn't available today, what would you do?"

  • If your key customers expect you to answer the phone at all times, get an Internet phone line and give them a "VIP" phone number to call. Set it up with a unique ring on your system and you'll know that calls on that line are from your most important customers.

  • Most people have a “To Do” list to record the tasks they need to "Get Done", but it doesn't help identify what you shouldn't do yourself. For that you need a “To Don’t” list. Identify the culprits, put them on the list and defend your time by assigning them elsewhere. 

  • E-mails have overtaken the phone now as the most dangerously effective of all Time Bandits. Turn off your e mail alert and check your e-mail only four times a it on your schedule not the schedule of the people who are interrupting your more productive work.

  • E-mails have overtaken the phone as the most dangerously effective of all time wasters. The worst thing is the e mail alert that pops up on your computer screen. Don't let other people interrupt you in this way and take back control of your time by turning the alert off

  • When somebody interrupts you while sitting at your desk, stand up. It changes the pace of the interaction and sends a message to the interrupter that they have invaded your time. The more you can send this message, the more effective you will become at protecting your time.

  • When somebody comes to you with an issue they should figure out themselves, don't allow yourself to relieve them of the burden and take it on yourself. Instead of saying "leave it with me" when this happens, say "never delegate upwards" and ask them for their solution.

  • Entrepreneurs wear so many of the hats in their business that many of the tasks they carry out are at a level way below the real value of their time. Are you working below your pay grade by not handing off menial tasks that should be done by others?

  • When you are hiring new employees, ask candidates about their time management abilities. The best employees are those that can prioritize their work and handle interruptions, so be sure to ask relevant questions to probe in those areas so that you hire somebody who has those skills.

  • Email has become a huge time-waster and taking control of your Inbox is becoming more critical than ever. The ideal state is only to have things in your Inbox that are important, urgent or time sensitive, and to put everything else automatically into folders using Rules governing what happens when they come in. I’ve been using Outlook Rules for a number of years to sort specific topics, but I recently came across a new rule that makes a dramatic difference.

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Did you know ?

Most people have a “To Do” list to record the tasks they need to "Get Done", but it doesn't help identify what you shouldn't do yourself. For that you need a “To Don’t” list. Identify the culprits, put them on the list and defend your time by assigning them elsewhere.