Coaching Tools 101: The Urgent Important Matrix - What is it and How To Use it!

The Urgent Important Matrix is a powerful productivity and time management tool to help people manage their time more effectively. It's great for a wide spectrum of coaches from career, executive and business coaching to life and even spiritual coaching.

It's also a great model to share with youth and anyone who is disorganized to help them be more focused - and it's a compelling experiential tool to use in a workshop or seminar. Wouldn't it be nice to ride the wave, rather than the other way around?

So, what is The Urgent Important Matrix?

Well, Former US President Eisenhower used this so-called "Eisenhower Principle" to organize his tasks. He is quoted as saying, "What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important." It was Dr Stephen Covey (of "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People" fame) who took these concepts mainstream, calling it The Urgent Important Matrix in his famous book .

Urgent Important Matrix - Image of GridUsing a simple grid, it defines tasks according to their importance and urgency:

  • Quadrant 1 - Crises - URGENT and IMPORTANT
  • Quadrant 2 - Goals and Planning - NON-URGENT and IMPORTANT
  • Quadrant 3 - Interruptions - URGENT and NOT IMPORTANT
  • Quadrant 4 - Distractions - NOT URGENT and NOT IMPORTANT

What do we mean here by Important and Urgent?

  • Urgent Tasks: cause us to react, we stop what we're currently doing and work on the urgent task instead.
  • Important Tasks: lead us towards our overall mission or goals and these key actions often require planning, organization and initiative.

So, let's take a more detailed look at the individual Urgent Important Matrix quadrants:

Quadrant 1 - Crises or "Important AND Urgent" Tasks

What: Tasks that fall into this quadrant include deadlines, urgent meetings, pressing problems, crises and fire-fighting. This can be anything from an overdue project or report to customer complaints, a severe bottleneck or broken business process right through to a burst pipe or a health issue like a toothache that hasn't been dealt with!

How we feel: When we spend a lot of time in this quadrant we become stressed and burned out.

Action: Minimise the time spent in this quadrant by prioritizing, planning and delegating ie. spending more time in Quadrant 2. Your clients may need help identifying and clarifying priorities -- and to brainstorm ways to schedule chunks of time for these important tasks. You may also find the "Big Rocks" Coaching Exercise helpful where they identify and focus on completing their "big rocks" first before working on the pebbles and sand which otherwise fill up their lives.

Coaching Tip: If your client is in a line management or service based role, they will spend more time in this quadrant than a project manager. But there are always improvements to be had by spending more time in Quadrant 2 - perhaps carving out time to build relationships, put in systems and processes and delegating.

Quadrant 2 - Goals and Planning or "Important and Non-Urgent" Tasks

Surfer on a Wave

The Magic Quadrant is like surfing the wave, staying on top of your important things, making progress and not allowing things to become urgent through lack of focus!

What: This is your MAGIC quadrant! Also called the big picture quadrant. These actions move us towards our big goals and projects and could include planning, relationship and team-building, issue prevention and risk-assessment and even health and recreational activities that help us maintain balance in our lives like a dentist appointment or booking a plumber.

How we feel: When we spend a lot of time in this quadrant we feel calmer and under control, we deal with most issues before they arise and are likely to have solid support from others. All of this means fewer crises to manage later which is good for our clients, their careers AND the organizations they work for.

Action: Help your clients maximise the time spent in this quadrant. Set specific time aside to plan, build relationships, prepare for problems and look after their health. Ask them specific questions to help them see how planning and preparing will save them time and effort in the long run.

Coaching Tip: Many people resist time spent planning and preparing, preferring instead to be 'doing'. For these clients, you could also share the "Action Priority Matrix" Tool which helps people identify which activities and tasks give them maximum results for the least effort.

Quadrant 3 - Interruptions or "Urgent and Not Important" Tasks

What: Tasks or activities in this quadrant interrupt or take us away from our important tasks. This could be anything from co-workers stopping by for a chat, unnecessarily checking your email, answering the phone to other people's interruptions and unimportant meetings.

How we feel: When we spend a lot of time in this quadrant we feel like we're not achieving much or getting anywhere. Often, as a result, we react to others unpleasantly and feel stuck, frustrated and stressed out.

Action: Minimize the amount of time in this quadrant by reviewing and prioritizing your task list and focusing on the high importance tasks first. Clients may also need help to say no and question or delegate other people's interruptions.

Coaching Tip: If this is an area your client spends a lot of time in you may also find keeping an interruptions log helpful. This helps clients to identify patterns, understand the source of their interruptions and come up with an action plan.

Quadrant 4 - Distractions or "Not Urgent AND Not Important" Tasks

What: Time spent in this quadrant are distractions from the tasks at hand. They can range from excessive or irrelevant email or phone calls from friends, social media usage to any activity we use that wastes time and avoids necessary work. These distractions lead to us being late, not finishing projects or tasks on time and can leave us tired, stressed and unable to be effective. In our personal lives things like excessive TV or internet surfing at home can also fall into this category. At an extreme, too much time spent in this quadrant can lead to negative self-talk, depression and people being fired!

Some of these distractions can leave us feeling energized in measured doses, so we're not saying people have to be focused all the time, just that to make best use of time we need to be aware of when, where and how often we distract ourselves.

Action: Eliminate time spent unconsciously in distractions. Use the time reclaimed from this quadrant to boost other areas.

Coaching Tip: If your client spends a lot of time in this quadrant, get them to write a list of all their distractions and how long they spend on each one, recording this over a week time period. When they add up the total time spent they may have a shock... Also I recommend to get them focused on some goals they are inspired and excited about - something big enough to take priority over a 'distraction'. You may also like to help them with a "Not To-Do List", a coaching tool which asks clients to write down a list of things NOT to do and helps them review and come up with a supporting action plan.

Urgent Important Matrix Template Page 1An Urgent Important Matrix Template and Worksheet

You can create your own handout, or simply draw the grid on a piece of paper for your clients. Or you can use our Ready-made Urgent Important Matrix Template & Worksheet. This coaching tool makes great homework - it has space for your clients to write out their own unique tasks and timewasters in each quadrant on page 1, as well as a second page with ready-made questions to help your client evaluate their time management, review and consolidate what they've learned AND set 3 actions to implement their learnings and improve how they use their time going forwards. It's also a great workshop exercise.

Summarising The Urgent Important Matrix

The essence of the simple but powerful Urgent Important Matrix is:

  1. To consciously give priority to our most important tasks and to plan and delegate so that we deal with problems BEFORE they become urgent crises and
  2. To become aware of our interruptions and distractions so that we can reduce or eliminate them. This empowers people to manage their limited time resources so that they get their priority tasks done in more enjoyable and less stressful way.

Final Word: How much time your client spends in each quadrant will depend on many things including their personalities, how excited they are about their jobs and life and the type of job (and even boss), that they have. Everyone needs to find a unique way of working that works for them - and it's our job as coaches to help them do that.

If you like this Coaching Tools 101 Article about The Urgent Important Matrix, you may also like:
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Contributing Author:

Emma-Louise Elsey has been coaching since 2003 and is the Founder of The Coaching Tools Company and Fierce She's passionate about coaching and personal development. Originally a project and relationship manager for Fortune 500 companies she combined her love of coaching, creativity and systems to create over 100 brandable coaching tools, forms and exercises including 30+ completely free coaching tools. She now serves coaches and the coaching world through her exclusive newsletter for coaches, Coaches Helping Coaches Facebook Group and many other great tools, resources and ideas for your coaching toolbox. The Coaching Tools Company is an official ICF Business Solutions Partner.

Learn more about Emma-Louise & see all their articles here >>


  1. Akinjide

    Everything in life seems important but to treat the urgent matter with sense of urgency is a great challenge

  2. Sophia Brown

    The Eisenhower Matrix is one of the few productivity techniques that I actually find useful! It helps me focus on what I need to get done first. I actually use a platform called eisedo, which automatically prioritises my tasks into one of the four quadrants. It saves me a lot of time in deciding where to start and really helps me to make genuine progress!


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