We’ve all been there… a “to do” list that is so long you don’t know where to start. Every day more things are added and some things come flying at you as “URGENT!” In my work, I am noticing more and more teams struggling with how to prioritize because there is growing culture of what I refer to as the “tyranny of the urgency”.
I remember asking my boss once, “Help me to understand what is the most urgent and important thing to work on”. His response was…”It’s all urgent and import.” My feeling is it can’t all be urgent and important. We need tools for teams and leaders to decide what is most urgent and important or we will get washed under in a giant wave of tasks. When we get hit by too many of these waves efficiency and morale often decline.
The tool that I find most helpful in this conversation is the Urgent and Important Matrix. This simple tool has been used by organizations all over the world to help in planning, prioritizing, and learning where to focus our attention. The matrix also builds common language for prioritization within a team.
There are four quadrants to the tool. Low important and Low Urgency tasks are the quick things to get off our list and often the place people can spend 40-60% of the day. Email is a big one in this quadrant. We have to watch that we don’t spend our entire day on low important and low urgent items. High important and Low Urgency tasks are the items that we have a longer timeline for and we tend to kick down the road. These are what Steven Covey calls the “Big Rock” items. We have to schedule time to work on these items and manage disruptions (like turn off email). These items easily slip off our radar. High Urgency and Low Importance tasks are the ones that come flying at us all day long with emails, texts, calls and knocks on the door. Someone comes knocking on the door or calls with a sense of urgency,even though it was not on your priority list. These are the ones teams need to stop, think and ask ourselves…”is it really that urgent?” Team members can learn to manage this urgency by using the matrix tool. Lastly,High Important and High Urgency tasks are the items where we should be spending most of our time. We should be applying our strengths to these items. These are the items that often get pushed around due to the tyranny of the High Urgency and Low Importance requests.
I have some clients who use this tool on a daily basis to help them organize their to-do list. I also have teams that use it at the end of a staff meeting to help everyone be clear on the highest priority items. The tool helps clarify strategy and builds commitment. I also have coached individuals to use this tool to hold back the waves of urgency by asking the simple question….”I can see that this is very urgent for you. I am currently working on these high important and high urgent items ____________. Would you like me to stop working on that to shift towards your more urgent item? If so, which items would you like me to stop working on? Or can it wait until later today or tomorrow? ” Teams that test their assumptions on urgency can spend more time on the highly important and urgent items on their lists.
When a team starts to prioritize together they can hold the Tyranny of Urgency at bay and create calmer waters for a team, greater productivity, and more strategic outcomes.
What prioritization tools do you use? Let me know.