Are You Stuck in Urgent/Important Mode?

Urgent Important

Working with a client this morning, I was reminded yet again, just how important personal effectiveness skills are. People often talk about time management, but I don’t think that phrase is quite accurate.

It’s not about managing our time exactly. It’s about managing our priorities, our focus, our attention and establishing boundaries and expectations. It’s about being assertive, educating your team and delegating.

It’s about making sure that you’re being as effective as possible – and there’s lots that can get in the way of that.

My client was stuck in Urgent/Important mode. A senior educational leader, her days were spent fire-fighting, managing crises, being drawn into mundane queries that were nothing to do with her and being interrupted constantly. Working from home was the only time she felt she actually got to grips with the more strategic aspect of her work – the rest of the time, these tasks were being tackled after an 11 hour work day.

She’d not heard of Steven Covey’s model; as I explained it to her, I could see the the light of realization dawning on her face. The penny dropped.

Covery Matrix

Steven Covey’s Urgent/Important matrix

Steven Covey’s model gives us four quadrants where we can place our focus, time energy and attention at work.

Urgent and Important – here, you’re in the crisis zone. You’ll be fire-fighting and dealing with emergencies and last minute work, often running around like a headless chicken and may often feel that you’re not actually getting any ‘work’ done at all.

Important but not Urgent – Covey argues that this quadrant is where we should be working from. Here, our prioritized tasks are diarised, work is planned and we are strategic in what we do. We should have time for thinking, planning, creating, preparation and so on.

Urgent but not Important – this represents other people’s demands on us. Typically, others may be working from ‘Urgent and Important’, and may present their last minute needs and priorities as ours. We need assertiveness skills to reject these demands on our time and attention – and in the longer term, educate our colleagues and teams not to approach us with those tasks.

Not Urgent or Important – these are distractions, such as tidying your desk constantly, collecting lottery money, gossiping, surfing the internet, getting sidetracked and so on. They’re non productive in the main, and you’ll need to minimize them.

My client’s days were spent in ‘Urgent and Important’ and something needed to change. Are you the same?

Here are 7 ways to shift your energy, focus and attention so that you’re working in ‘Important but not Urgent’.

1. Learn to prioritise. Take a look at your long term plans and make sure that those bigger pieces of work are actually entered into your dairy, with enough time to meet their demands. This is especially important if you have an electronic diary and other team members or your assistant  may be able to book meeting into it. Get in there first and block the time out you need – empty diary space has a tendency to get filled for you. Work in blocks of time – maybe six weeks, or 90 days, and ensure all the time you’ll need to accomplish those tasks is accounted for. These ‘big rocks’ will allow you to then fit in smaller tasks around them.

2. Build in a daily crumple-zone. This is a short amount of quiet time in your diary that gives you a breathing space to catch up or even sit quietly and think. The more senior you are, the more you will need this. You can’t be strategic and fight fires at the same time. Put this time in your diary as before.

3. Batch tasks together to minimise the pick up time. Constantly moving from one thing to another wastes energy and the time taken to re-engage with a task is often longer than you think. Work in blocks of time that suit your attention span and schedule in as many of these as you need to complete a phase of work on a project.

4. Close your door. Yes, that’s right – close it. And if you don’t have a door on your office, go and work somewhere that has one for a time. Educate your team to leave you alone when the door is shut.

5. Review everything you’re working on once a week – why are you doing it, what progress is being made and are you the right person to be doing it? What changes might you need to make?

6. Learn to say ‘no’ and become more assertive – this is a longer term strategy and absolutely crucial. If staff have a long history of being able to interrupt you, their behaviour isn’t going to change overnight. You’ll need to be persistent and decide what your message is around your working practices – and then consistently share that message every time you’re interrupted or approached with other people’s demands. Focus on one thing at a time that you’d like to change; when you’ve made progress there, work on something else. Prioritise according to what pushes you towards Urgent and Important the most.

7. Understand that your choices over how you spend your precious time, energy, attention and resources, really, really matter. The chances are that your workload is never going to ease…so where you choose to place your focus is going to make a huge difference to you. And you are in charge of that.

My client has gone away feeling optimistic and as though her load has been lightened.

How about you? Does this subject feel familiar? Left unchecked, an ‘Urgent/Important’ workplace habit can quickly become overwhelming.

If you’re a senior leader or executive and want to lift your performance this year, with a view to stepping into a more senior role, then get in touch. If you’re busy running around like a headless chicken, you won’t be showing up as a leader – and others won’t see or appreciate your full capabilities.

You may want to take a look at  the Visible Leadership Programme too.

one_to_one_coachingI’m Susan Ritchie, an author, leadership and executive coach and trainer. My second book, Strategies for Being Visible: 14 Profile-Raising Ideas for Emerging Female Leaders is now available as a paperback, an audiobook and for the Kindle reader.