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

Urgent Important Matrix on Desk with Pen

The Urgent Important Matrix is a powerful productivity and time management tool to help people manage their time more effectively. It divides tasks into 4 quadrants according to how urgent and important they are, which helps people understand where their time goes and be more productive with the time they have.

Who benefits from The Urgent Important Matrix?

The Urgent Important Matrix is great for a wide spectrum of coaches from career, executive and business coaches to life, parent and spiritual coaches. You can also use The Urgent Important Matrix with youth and anyone disorganized to help them be more focused. It also makes a compelling experiential tool to use in a workshop or webinar, and remember to use it for yourself too...

So, what is The Urgent Important Matrix?

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." But it was Dr Stephen Covey (who wrote The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People) who took these concepts mainstream in his book, calling it The Urgent Important Matrix.

A Quick Overview of The Urgent Important Matrix

Urgent Important Matrix Image of QuadrantsUsing a simple grid, this powerful matrix 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. Crucially, we stop what we're currently doing to work on the urgent task instead.
  • Important Tasks lead us towards our overall mission or goals. These key actions often require planning, organization and initiative.

So, let's take a more detailed look at each Urgent Important Matrix quadrant.

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.

Goal: Minimise time spent in this quadrant by prioritizing, planning and delegating ie. spending more time in Quadrant 2.

Coaching Tips

  • Your clients may need help identifying and clarifying their 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.
  • Note that if your client is in a line management or service-based role, they'll spend more time in the "Crises" quadrant than a strategic or project manager. But there are always improvements to be had by spending more time in Quadrant 2 below—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

This Magic Quadrant is like surfing a wave. Stay on top of important things, make good progress and don't allow crises to develop!

What: This is your MAGIC quadrant! Also called the big picture quadrant, these actions move us towards our big goals and projects. They 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.

Goal: Help your clients maximise the time spent in this quadrant.

Coaching Tips

  • Help your clients 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.
  • 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.

Goal: Minimize the amount of time in this quadrant by reviewing and prioritizing task lists and focusing on high importance tasks first.

Coaching Tips

  • Clients may need help to say no and question or delegate other people's interruptions.
  • If your client spends a lot of time in this quadrant, you may also find keeping an interruptions log helpful. Help clients identify patterns, understand the source of their interruptions and come up with an action plan to reduce and minimise intrusions.

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 even people being fired!

It's important to note that some 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—and for how long—we distract ourselves.

Goal: Eliminate time spent unconsciously in distractions. Then use the time reclaimed from this quadrant to boost other areas.

Coaching Tips

  • 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. Then when they add up the total time spent they may have a 'helpful' shock...
  • Also I recommend to get clients focused on goals they're inspired about. And these should be big and exciting enough to take priority over a 'distraction'.
  • You may also like to help clients with a "Not To-Do List". This coaching tool asks clients to write down a list of things NOT to do and helps them review and come up with a supporting action plan.

The Urgent Important Matrix Summarised

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.
  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 and get their priority tasks done in more enjoyable—and less stressful way.

Get your own Urgent Important Matrix Worksheet!

You can create your own handout, or simply ask clients to draw the Urgent-Important grid on a piece of paper, and talk them through it.

Or you can use our ready-made Urgent Important Matrix Template & Worksheet.

  • This done for you coaching tool is great to use in a coaching session, makes great homework, and also a powerful workshop or webinar exercise.
  • Page 1 explains the concept and asks your clients to write out their own unique tasks and timewasters in each quadrant.
  • Page 2 has ready-made questions to help your client evaluate their time management, and review and consolidate what they've learned.
  • Finally, your client sets 3 actions to implement their learnings and improve how they use their time going forwards.

Final thoughts on using this tool

The Urgent Important Matrix is an incredibly helpful concept. But remember that how much time your client spends in each quadrant will depend on many things including their personalities, how excited they are about their jobs, 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 our clients them do just that.

Do you love time management?

If you loved this Urgent Important Matrix, you'll also love our Time Management Toolkit! This toolkit also contains the Urgent Important Matrix, the Action-Priority Matrix, Not To-Do List and Interruptions Blaster mentioned—plus 4 more tools and a detailed user guide to help your clients be more efficient and productive.

Emma-Louise Elsey Headshot

Contributing Author:

Emma-Louise Elsey has been coaching since 2003 and is the Founder of The Coaching Tools Company and Fierce Kindness.com. 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 >>

6 Comments

  1. Akinjide

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

    Reply
    • Emma-Louise

      Hi Akinjide, the idea with The Urgent Important Matrix is to stop the "urgent" matters BEFORE they become urgent by planning and being organized! This tool helps you see where you might be spending your time, and making changes to be more effective 🙂 Warmly, Emma-Louise

      Reply
  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!

    Reply
    • Emma-Louise

      That's really cool Sophia. I love the idea of an app that uses The Urgent Important Matrix as a guide! Thank-you for your comment 🙂 Warmly, Emma-Louise

      Reply

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