The coronavirus pandemic has forced many of us into constant and relentless assignments. For example, these responsibilities might be moving to a remote work experience with our teams, struggling to retain and retain customers, or stepping up to meet a burst of demand. And that’s just business. On the home front, we continue to overcome countless challenges. Trying to stay productive, taking care of our loved ones, and doing our best to stay healthy are also what we have to do at home.
It’s normal to feel overwhelmed in all of this. This pushes us from the beginning with the thought of where to start. Former US President and WWII General Dwight Eisenhower focused on two criteria in times of crisis: importance and urgency. Using these criteria, Covey popularized a matrix adaptable to current conditions. On one axis is importance, on the other urgency. When you need to prioritize your tasks, this matrix can help you decide when to delegate, eliminate, or postpone the less important one to focus on critical tasks.
How is it prioritized?
Start by writing a comprehensive “to-do” list of tasks that are the hot topic of every meeting and keep you up at night. Get them out of your head and put them on a piece of paper. If that’s too much, try organizing to-dos by different projects, teams, or areas like work, home, kids. Next, take some time to define the two axes.
First, understand how you measure the importance of a task. This may include: probability of success, impact (outcome or leading indicators), competitive advantage, value fit, cost, risk or must-haves. Then think about how you measure urgency by defining time periods (for example, this morning, end of the day, this week, this month) or the consequences or benefits of completing or procrastinating on tasks.
Finally, you will need to plot your tasks in the matrix. In the upper right corner you will place both important and urgent tasks. These are top priorities that are time sensitive and critical to implement. Tackle them head-on, not to mention doing them over and over again. These could be critical customer issues or supplier inventory deadlines, or actions that were removed from the previous week that are now both important and urgent.
The upper left corner is for important but less urgent tasks. These are tasks that are key to achieving your goals but do not need to be done right away. To keep them off your radar, schedule a specific time with an absolute, outside due date. Maybe you need to create a plan for strategic pivots on the horizon, set up post-launch client interviews, or check-in with a new hire. Often times, if these items are ignored, they will boil over and change in the back stove.
The lower right corner is for less important urgent tasks. These tasks are not at the center of your goals and are often opportunities for empowerment and teamwork. You can accomplish these tasks by unblocking projects that help others succeed, encouraging autonomy, or matching on a problem. These to-dos can often be easily handled with the help of others.
Finally, the lower left corner is for both less important and less urgent tasks. You’ll want to find ways to turn them off quickly. Start by eliminating old tasks. For the remaining tasks, determine whether procrastination is the right call by evaluating the negative impact and reversibility of the results. You can also explore whether some tasks can be completed with less effort and turned into a quick win.
Prioritization is for teams.
This important/immediate matrix can also be helpful when teams are lost and disorganized. Whether you have a face-to-face meeting in a meeting room or have an online meeting, using post-it or flip-chart will be to your advantage.
If your “to do” list still seems untenable, try another scan. Identify the tasks that are within your circle of control. Identify concrete ways to advance these tasks for those you cannot control but can influence.
Keep this matrix dynamic by reviewing and revising regularly as you complete your to-do, new tasks, and context pivots. With this urgent/important matrix, you can invest your energy where it is needed most.