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The Priority Matrix

By Glen Chapman  

The priority matrix is a very simple but very effective tool for helping us get through the tasks we have. It is especially useful for those that have problems with too much work on our plate, or can't seem to get to the work we want to do because new jobs keep hitting our desk from customers, phone calls or new projects.

By using the priority matrix we can decide which tasks get our attention immediately and which ones get left to a later time. So how does it work?

If we look at two key aspects of a tasks. A task will be either urgent or non-urgent. The urgent tasks are those that seem to need our immediate attention or must be done immediately. They are usually the ones that take our time because of the pressure they put on us to be completed. Non-urgent tasks are ones that can be done either at a later date or, initially, at any time in the future.

The other characteristic of a task is whether it is Important or Not Important. Important tasks are those that have to be done. They are usually mission critical and have to be done to ensure the business continues to operate. They maybe relate to any number of areas of the business including customers, finance, planning or legal tasks.

Not Important tasks are those that won't matter if they are completed or not. They have no influence on the operation or performance of the business or its people.

So where do you start. The matrix is formed by splitting a page into four sections. Across the top of the matrix we allocate Urgent and Non-urgent to the two columns. Down the side we allocate Important and Not Important to the rows.





 (QI)   (QII) 

 Not Important


So, when we are looking at a list of tasks, we need to ask ourselves whether a task is important and whether it is urgent. Once you have allocated all your tasks to a quadrant you can now focus on Quadrant I (QI) and Quadrant II (QII). By completing QI & II tasks first, you make sure that all the tasks that are critical are completed. As you finish these you can move onto the other quadrants in the not important row.

What we want to ultimately do is keep the tasks in QI as small as possible (or non existent) and be working from QII. This then gives us the flexibility to work at a pace that keeps us sane. If you are forever working in the Urgent / Important quadrant you will find you are in a reactive state all the time, which can be very stressful.

An additional step you can also add to this process is to score each of the tasks based on their importance (1,3,5, or 50) and their urgency (1-5). This scoring then allows us to focus even more on the most important and urgent tasks first.

Say a task is scored 5 for importance and 5 for urgency and another is rated a 50 for importance and 1 for urgency (both are in QI). In this case if we multiply the two numbers together you can then use the result to prioritise each quadrant.

Once you have a matrix setup you can quickly make an assessment of a new task that hits your "desk" you can determine where it belongs in the matrix and then move on with your action plan. Many tasks that come to you may appear very urgent, usually because of someone elses urgency, but you may find that a good proportion of these are not important. So this helps you avoid shifting your focus from what needs to be done.

(© 1995 – 2007 Glen Chapman)