What nobody tells you about the Important vs Urgent matrix

You probably know the Important vs Urgent matrix. In fact, you may be so familiar that you could draw it from memory. If you don’t know what it is, let me say that the name kind of gives it away, and a quick web search will reveal hundreds of examples. Here’s mine to add to the canon:

I highly recommend investing in a set of felt-tip pens.

I think this can be a powerful thinking tool for increasing productivity, but the lesson it’s trying to teach us is both disarmingly simple and over-familiar. That’s a terrible combination for learning — we know what familiarity breeds, and simple lessons are notoriously hard to smuggle past our “Yes, I know!” reflex. I think the way we can get to the buried treasure here is to pick up where most of the writing about this leaves off.

This matrix — taking the classic two axis / four box form beloved of consultants and coaches everywhere — was popularised by Stephen Covey in his famous self-help book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The idea is that there’s a progression of value from the bottom right (least valuable = Not Important and Not Urgent), going clockwise to the top right (most valuable = Important and Not Urgent). Spending more time on Important and Non-Urgent Things is what Highly Effective People do. As US President Eisenhower supposedly said:

“What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.”

I pretty much agree with this, even if I do find the “Highly Effective” label a bit off-putting (and even if I am always skeptical about quotes attributed to historical world leaders). For me, the goal of personal productivity is greater enjoyment. It’s about getting more of what you want, and less of what you don’t. You don’t have complete control over what happens to you, but to the extent that you can influence it, you do that by exercising choice. Choosing to put more of your energy the things that are important to you, that further some goal you want to move towards, is one of the best ways to give yourself a more enjoyable life.

Feelings are like eggs. They may need careful handling but are ultimately nutritious.

If you’re already thinking ‘yes, yes, I know this’ — then that’s precisely the familiarity problem I was talking about. But here’s the thing: I don’t think the power of this idea is in what you know. It’s in what you feel. What isn’t much discussed about this matrix is the emotions it encodes, and I think omission hides some valuable wisdom. Urgent tasks and important tasks feel very different, and it’s this difference in feeling tone that lead us to the default state of “urgent > important”. If we want to get to the alternative state of “important > urgent”, we have to learn to work with those feelings more effectively.

Specifically there are two big emotional things going on here:

  • Urgent things usually do have an emotional charge, and
  • Important things often don’t have an emotional charge.

So the challenge that we have, if we want to spend more time ‘top right’, is to lessen the emotional charge of the urgent, and increase the emotional charge of the important. How exactly do we do that?

We all know the way that urgent things can exert a grip on us. At its strongest, the grip seems almost literal. When I get really caught up in a task it can feel like a hand is reaching in and grabbing me behind the solar plexus. It seems like the only way to loosen the grip is to finish the task, no matter how long it takes. I’m sure we’re all familiar with getting stuck on that one last problem we can’t quite put down at the end of the day, although we could just as easily tackle it in the morning. These are more extreme examples, but they illustrate what’s happening in the more common or garden cases where we, say, prioritise answering emails over finishing an article (👀). In all of these situations, a feeling leads to a behaviour without any conscious intervention — and the whole thing goes so fast that it seems automatic. When that happens, we’re failing to distinguish two things that are really separate: the stimulus, and the response.

Finding wiggle room in a narrow gap can be tricky at first.

If we can catch that stimulus-response in the act, we have the chance to change our behaviour, by finding the gap between the sensations and our reactions to them. When we notice the feeling for what it is (a feeling), then we have a chance to pause and gently redirect ourselves to a different course of action. This can be an uncomfortable process. We don’t have control of our feelings and the “iron grip” of urgency may hang around longer than we’d like it to, even when we’ve seen that it’s “just a feeling” and have broken our habitual response pattern. Building our capacity for this kind of discomfort is an important step towards achieving our goals — in the same way that building our capacity for muscular discomfort is an important part of improving our physical fitness. This is not an easy practice (I speak as someone who regularly fails at it), but it does work, and it does get more manageable the more you do it.

Diffusing some of the charge of urgent tasks is the first step to getting more of what we want. The complementary step is to increase the appeal of important tasks. We can work out how to do this by thinking about why it is that important things often don’t have a strong pull in the first place.

Planting a sapling is an excellent endeavour for future generations to enjoy.

By definition, things that are urgent happen on a short-time scale: their rewards are immediate. Things that are important, by contrast, take longer to pay off, and have less of an up-front cost if we neglect them. As humans we can struggle with these long lead times. We are very present-focused, and find delayed gratification hard (well, I know I do). Two things that can help us out here are building a deeper emotional connection with the future, and providing short term rewards for planting the acorns of our important oak trees.

Creating the rewards is surprisingly easy. The template for doing it is right in front of us: it’s the kind of dopamine-circuit hacking that modern technology is using on us all the time. People will do anything to generate a sparkly visual on a screen, or to see what’s behind a notification badge. We can use the same tricks for important tasks. One of my coaching clients had the problem that they had plenty of satisfied customers, but could never find the time to reach out to them to generate repeat business. I suggested they put a stack of post-it notes on the wall above their desk, numbered 5 through to 0. Each time they reached out to an old customer, they could peel off one of the post-its — and at the end of the week they reset the stack. Even this tiny physical act generates a reward, and the visible number is a way of tracking your progress. These sort of things provide incentives to help you slot important tasks into your day, around the more obvious demands of the urgent.

I made my way through January one little green box at a time.

In my own life, during the early part of lockdown I got into a vicious cycle of not exercising, and feeling unfit, and not exercising. To help me rediscover the joy of movement, I set myself a daily goal of a 30 minute work out or 10K steps, and I used the free HabitCal tool to track my progress. Although it took some months for me to really start to feel like I was getting somewhere, the daily small reward of putting a green box against my day’s exercise goal was a surprisingly big motivator. I know people who use Tangerine or TickTick in a similar way, and there are many other similar apps out there — or get creative and design your own reward system (glitter and colour-coding is entirely optional — but definitely fun).

The second part of making important things more attractive is building our emotional connection to the future. It takes a bit more time, but is worth doing, in the same way that it’s worth it for companies to invest time in articulating the direction they want to go in. The more fully formed we can make our vision of our important goals, the more we’ll feel drawn to working towards them today. Different ways of doing this work better for different people. I’m a very verbal thinker, so I find writing things down helps me imagine them. Some people prefer to create a ‘vision board’. It sounds a bit cheesy, but it really can be helpful.

If you’re going to make friends with someone, why not start with yourself?

Another practice that I find useful here is what I call “befriending my future self”. It’s easy to forget that the person who will experience the positive or negative outcome of your actions will be you, because they’re not happening yet — so why not have that extra [glass of wine]? It’s easy to resolve to go to bed earlier when you wake up tired; but when bed time rolls around, there’s the appeal of just one more episode of your favourite show. This is an example of what Daniel Kahneman is pointing to in distingushinging two parts of our psychology, the Remembering Self and the Experiencing Self. It’s like one part of us faces the emotional valance of choosing; while another part faces the consequences. How can we bring these parts closer together? One thing that I find effective is to stop and ask myself “what will my future self want me to have done?” This sometimes helps me redirect my energy onto important things, and when I succeed at that, I notice it, and I give myself credit. This sets up a positive cycle, where I do things I care about, and I praise myself for it, and I feel good about myself, which in turn means I’m more likely to do things I care about. This is a wonderful way to improve your relationship with yourself (especially if you’ve been getting on your own nerves — a very real risk during solo lockdown).

It’s easy to draw the Important vs Urgent diagram and make a case for why important things matter more than urgent ones. It makes a great TED Talk: very inspiring, but what do you do differently as a result? To make a lasting change, I think you have to go deeper, and to look at why things are they way they are now, and how you can change some of the deeper structures in your life (or your business) so that different patterns of behaviour can emerge. All too often coaching conversations stop short of getting into the structure. It’s like how accountability sessions only really deliver value if you use them to ask why some things aren’t going well, and to look for solutions that aren’t just “try harder”. I think understanding the emotional landscape of the Important vs Urgent Matrix is a key part of learning to use it, and what I’m offering here is some tools that have worked for me. I hope they can also help you get more enjoyment out of your life, in and out of work.

KEY POINTS

Reducing the charge of urgent things

  • Separating stimulus and response — seeing the feeing as a feeling, gently redirecting

Increasing the appeal of important things

  • Dopamine hacking — rewarding the immediate actions towards important goals
  • Building emotional connection with the future — visualisation, befriending your future self

“Operations” is my thing. I work with solo entrepreneurs and SMEs to improve the way their businesses run. You can find me online at andrewormerod.com