Time Management—Part 3: Setting Priorities for Success in Your Business
Those who spend too little time on what’s most important inevitably fail to accomplish the things essential to their success
by David Cox | September 03, 2019
Setting Priorities – The “Urgent-Important Matrix”
One of my favorite authors on the subject of setting priorities is the late Stephen Covey. He helped popularize a concept on setting priorities that he expressed as the “Urgent-Important Matrix.” He formalized the idea in his seminal work, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” Later, he elaborated on the concept more fully in his book, “Putting First Things First.” I still find it to be an incredibly helpful time management tool.
Setting Priorities – The categories of the “Urgent-Important Matrix”
Basically, Covey determined that success in using the “Urgent-Important Matrix” relied on a person’s willingness to answer two questions honestly.
- Is this task important?
- Is this task urgent?
Answering these questions will help you assign each of your responsibilities to the appropriate categories of the matrix. Now, let’s look at what each of the four categories represents.
Category #1 – Urgent and Important (Crises and projects with deadlines)
This category is for the highest priority tasks. They need to get done now. Keep as few tasks as possible here, striving to eliminate what doesn’t meet the criteria for this category. If you spend too much of your time on these tasks, you’re working basically as a troubleshooter, and will never have time to work on longer-term projects.
Also, if two or more tasks in this category appear to be equally urgent, you might want to collaborate with those who originated the tasks and reevaluate them. Hopefully, their input will help you reprioritize these tasks.
Category #2 – Not Urgent but Important (Planning, goals, and building relationships)
When you work on tasks in this category, you’re always working on something important and need to have the time to do it properly. The goal is to spend most of your time here. Focusing on these tasks will help you produce high-quality work.
Oddly enough, these tasks are often the most neglected, yet they’re the most essential to your success. Covey determined that most people, when given a choice between doing something urgent or something important, will typically choose what is urgent.
Specifically, the tasks in this category can include strategic thinking, deciding on goals or general direction, and planning. These tasks may not be urgent, but they’re essential to running a successful business.
Category #3 – Urgent but not Important (Interruptions, distractions, and busy work)
Strive to minimize the number of tasks that you have in this category. These are the tasks that keep you busy, but not productive. You may convince yourself these tasks are important, but in reality, they’re often little more than busywork.
This category may also include tasks such as phone calls, emails, reports, filing, and other routine activities.
Obviously, there may be others dictating how you order your priorities. However, you shouldn’t hesitate to explain why you’ve made a particular task an immediate priority. Once you explain the situation, your employer or client may agree and allow this task to remain a priority. Regardless, a client may influence you, but your employer has the right to reorder your priorities.
Category #4 – Not Urgent and not Important (Wasted time and energy)
Strive to eliminate as many tasks as possible in this category. Here is where we go to escape after spending too much time in categories #1 and #3. If you spend too much time on activities in this category, it may cause category #2 activities to get postponed until they become urgent. Then, you’ll need to move them to category #1. Unfortunately, it’s now too late to get them done with the quality of work desired by all parties.
This category may include tasks such as web browsing, checking social media, or any activity you might use to procrastinate.
You may wonder, “Why would it be difficult for anyone to eliminate category #4 tasks if these waste time and energy? It’s often difficult to eliminate these tasks because many falling into this category would be “good” to accomplish. Covey often reminded his readers that, “in prioritizing tasks, good is the enemy of the important.” Inevitably, proper time management forces us to accept that we must choose which tasks we will complete and which we need to eliminate.
Setting priorities – The “Urgent-Important Matrix” helps you improve your time management skills by:
- Allowing you to deal with the truly important and work toward your goals
- Helping you make better decisions about how to schedule your time and making necessary adjustments
- Compelling you to determine whether activities are actually a waste of your time and energy
- Enabling you to regain control over your environment, rather than allowing your environment to control you
Will your time management always be easier if you use this method? Not necessarily. Time management is still a challenge, but undoubtedly, developing your ability to prioritize tasks and activities effectively will help you improve. Let’s face it, sometimes too many demands can overwhelm even the best of us. That’s why a system is essential in learning how to set priorities.
Rule #3 – The third rule of time management
As we build our list, I’ve already offered the first two rules of time management:
I conclude this week’s article by adding a third rule to our list:
Rule #3 – Learn how to set priorities so that you’re always doing things in the order of their importance.
Next week, I’ll cover the fourth of five rules that help me make better decisions with regards to time management. Moreover, they’ve helped me stay on track as ThirdPartyBlogger.com continues to grow and develop. As always, I can’t guarantee they’ll help you, but I can attest they’ve worked well for me.