The Urgent/Important Matrix: How to Reduce Overwhelm and Increase Effectiveness

I’m coaching a young leader who I call “The Pioneer”
He’s blazing a trail at a new location for his construction company. A couple weeks ago, I sensed he was a little frustrated and overwhelmed, so I introduced him to a simple, but powerful framework to help him efficiently focus his time on what’s most important.

It’s known as the urgent, important matrix. It was first attributed to Dwight Eisenhower and popularized by Stephen Covey in his classic book The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People. Its structured as a two-by-two matrix.

In this post I’ll:

  1. Explain the Urgent/Important Matrix
  2. Discuss how “The Pioneer” used it
  3. Explore how you can use it to reduce overwhelm and increase effectiveness

The Urgent/Important Matrix: How to Reduce Overwhelm and Increase Effectiveness Download

(click the image to download a copy of the matrix)

Explaining the Matrix
The section for long-term priorities are for tasks of high importance but low urgency. They’re tasks that are important to your leadership role but aren’t necessarily pressing. Tasks that fall into the critical activities section are important and need immediate attention since they are of both high importance and high urgency.

Unnecessary interruptions are of low importance and high urgency. These tasks have low importance in your role as a leader, but other people usually see them as highly urgent. Wasteful distractions is a category for anything of low importance and low urgency. Often, these are things that have no positive impact on your leadership role.

Your effectiveness as a leader is directly related to your ability to successfully manage your time.
You must clearly define what’s important and urgent and discipline yourself to spend approximately 80 percent of your time on long-term priorities and critical activities. This reduces the amount of the time spent on unnecessary interruptions and wasteful distractions. But first you must identify your vision, mission, role, and responsibility. Now I’ve explained the Matrix, let’s explore how the Pioneer used it. 

Vision, Mission, Role and Responsibility
The Pioneer and I discussed his vision and mission. His vision is to establish a construction branch that earns $20 million annually. His mission is his why or what’s driving him. He wants to make the company and his family proud. Based on his vision and mission, I asked him what his role and responsibilities are as leader of this new construction branch. He narrowed down three specific areas.

  • Develop relationships and build trust with potential clients.
  • Bid and land work.
  • Build profitably.

These three things defined the big picture of his leadership role and responsibilities. Taking them into consideration, he mapped out his tasks on the urgent important matrix.

He talked about taking potential clients to a basketball game. This is one of the ways his company has chosen to develop relationships with people. But it doesn’t matter if he takes the client to a game next week or even next month as long as he does it at some point in the future. This is an example of a long-term priority because it’s important but of low urgency but high importance.

He often meets with a superintendent about the progress of a current job. Since this meeting happens on a regular basis and is necessary for the project to be profitable, it’s a classic example of a critical activity. He was also working on a bid due the following week, another critical activity of high importance and urgency.

After we filled in the long-term priorities and the critical activities, he told me about some tasks the corporate office had given him. They’d contacted him with a bunch of paperwork and assigned him little tasks like cutting keys or getting the business’ sign on the door. These tasks were urgent to them but of little importance to him because they didn’t fall under his role and responsibilities. They were unnecessary interruptions that would take him away from the highest and best use of his time.

Next, we discussed some wasteful distractions that took him away from focusing on what was most important. Everybody has them, such as goofing around on the Internet. These distractions keep us from focusing on what’s of high importance and high urgency.

Finally, let’s explore how you can use the urgent important matrix to avoid being overwhelmed and to become more effective as a leader.

Identify what’s most important to you
Clarify what your vision and mission are. What do you want your career to look like in the next two to five years? Your vision will dictate how you take charge of the way you spend your time. It’ll enable you to structure your life effectively.

Then ask yourself what’s your why? What drives your vision and motivates you to discipline yourself to overcome the challenges associated with achieving your vision? For instance, the pioneer’s mission, or his why, was to make his company and family proud.

What are the three or four big picture items that drive your success
Use these to define your define your role and responsibility. These big picture responsibilities will help you understand if you’re using your time effectively. Think through the initiatives you’re responsible for as a leader. What things can only you do? Do your best to reach the root of the matter. There are many things you can do as a leader in your construction company, but that doesn’t mean you should do all those things.

For instance, a construction CEO should be focused on developing and deepening relationships with key clients and direct reports. They should also plan strategically by thinking about new markets, new opportunities, and new projects. They should think about succession planning, even if they intend to be in that CEO seat for another ten to fifteen years. These responsibilities and initiatives of a CEO should drive how that CEO spends their time and how they block out time to focus on these critical things.

The best executives are fanatical about blocking out time to accomplish things only they can do. They allow their mission and vision, role and responsibility to determine what they block out time for.

Make sure your big picture items determine your critical activities
You must accept that some things are urgent and need to be done right now if they fall within your realm of responsibility. For instance, you might have a job walk that must be attended to that day. You might need to communicate directly with your client to overcome an issue that a project manager or project executive can’t. Only you can do it. These are critical activities of high importance and high urgency.

Block off time for long-term priorities and critical activities
Perhaps you have an executive who reports to you, and you go to breakfast with them on a monthly basis. Maybe you spend the first 90 minutes of your day on long-term priorities. Then you can feel perfectly free to block out large parts of your day for critical activities. Embrace the challenge and give yourself permission to work hard and fast for long periods of time with the knowledge that you’ve blocked out time for long-term priorities later.

Unnecessary interruptions can kill your effectiveness.
They’re often legitimately important to others, but not to you. For instance, the pioneer had been instructed to cut keys. That’s both important and urgent for new employees, but that’s not something the pioneer should use his time on. He needs to delegate that task to other people. Focus on reducing unnecessary interruptions.

Interruptions can show you where your leadership is falling short.
Use them to identify areas that need improvement. Maybe you allow interruptions because you don’t say “no.” This indicates that you lack the discipline or courage to do so. To minimize many interruptions and stay highly effective, you have to say “no” to people who interrupt you.

Some interruptions reveal a lack in training. If someone’s constantly interrupting you to ask what they should do in a situation, perhaps you haven’t trained them as effectively as you should have.

Other times, interruptions result from a lack of effective delegation. Perhaps you like being the hero. Or you’re a perfectionist and don’t trust people. You must let go of that and delegate smaller tasks, like cutting keys, to others.

Sometimes people interrupt you because you haven’t communicated with them effectively. Perhaps you’ve blocked off time from, let’s say, 7:30 a.m. to 9 a.m. for critical activities. Tell your team you’re unavailable during that time frame and should not be interrupted. But you should also allot time for people who need to discuss issues with you. If you block out time specifically for your direct reports, you can reduce interruptions.  Communicate with others. Share your calendar with them. Step up and say “no” when someone interrupts you.

We love pleasure and hate pain
As a result, we allow little distractions to come into our lives to try and escape the pain of deep or difficult work. Our brains require a distraction once in a while to take a break from high intensity activities and help reset our minds. You don’t want too much distraction though, so choose your pleasure carefully.

For instance, after I’ve spent time doing a task of high importance, I’ll give myself a ten- to fifteen-minute break for a distraction. I’m a sports nut, so I’ll schedule time to check out the latest news on my team. I can enjoy seeing how well Liverpool or the San Francisco Forty-Niners are doing without it taking too much time away from activities of high importance. I don’t have to feel guilty about it because I’ve scheduled time for it.

Music also helps me minimize distractions and focus on deep work. This morning while I was preparing to record a podcast episode, I listened to a movement from Beethoven’s sixth symphony called Peasants Merry Making. It’s a cool little track, and I’d accidentally set it on repeat. As it flowed, it enabled me to focus on preparing this podcast.

Another thing I’ll do to eliminate distractions is to consider the physical location where I do deep work. When I’m working one-on-one with clients during a coaching call, I move away from the computer. I take a pen and paper to help me focus on what the clients are saying. Then I won’t be distracted by my computer screen or email.

You can also eliminate distractions by going for walks while deep thinking. By my house there’s a little 2-mile loop, and I know it takes about 30 minutes. So when I go for a walk there, I don’t bring my watch, phone, or music. I can walk undistracted and think through some deep issues or challenges.

Get off the hamster wheel
You just might be a grinder, going and going, and you struggle with stopping to think through what’s urgent and important. The most effective executives set aside time to consider what’s urgent and important to them so they can use their time effectively. I encourage you to do the same. Take some time to fill out the matrix and focus your time.

The Relaxed Pioneer
Opening a new office is a big challenge for the young executive I’m coaching, but following our discussion of the Urgent/Important Matrix, I could hear in his voice that he had gained some insight and sense of control over what he was going to do with his time. He’s got a long-road ahead, but I’m confident he’ll be successful.

Here is how you can take action

  • Define your vision, mission, role, and responsibility.
  • Allow those to clearly define what’s important to you.
  • Spend about 80% of your time on long-term priorities and critical activities.
  • Embrace the idea of spending most of your time on critical activities
  • Reduce interruptions: say “no,” delegate effectively, and train effectively.
  • Manage distractions. Schedule time for them so you have a little break.

Block out your time and focus on what’s critically important and urgent to you. Don’t allow those interruptions and distractions to keep you from being an effective construction leader.

To download your copy of the Urgent/Important Matrix, click this link: