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Project teams are forever starting a new day and wondering what actions to take that will produce the largest impact. And as mornings give way to afternoons, we might need to reprioritize work again.  I’ve long been a fan of the urgent important matrix, sometimes called the Eisenhower matrix. In this blog, I’ll discuss four ways that the urgent important matrix can help project teams. I’ll also make a few more related suggestions.

I begin with the belief that project teams and individuals should always be looking for the activities that will generate the highest value for their employer and the client who is paying for the work. It’s not about how much you get done or how long you work. It’s whether you do the work that matters the most.

I also reject the idea that project teams need to work 60 hours a week. I’m not even convinced that employees should work a 40-hour week. One exception is when individuals and teams are investing in personal growth and team building activities during the week.

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Understand the urgent important matrix

In a 1961 address to the Century Association, Dwight Eisenhower reportedly said “Who can define for us with accuracy the difference between the long and short term! Especially whenever our affairs seem to be in crisis, we are almost compelled to give our first attention to the urgent present rather than to the important future.”1

And yet, if we spend all our time on the urgent present work, how do we find time for the work that will shape our future? Project teams typically drive the endeavors that will shape the future. How can they stay focused on the work that will make the most difference without whittling away too much time on work that must still be done?

Four Ways the Urgent Important Matrix Can Help Project Teams

Stephen Covey took Eisenhower’s philosophy and crafted a prioritization matrix, that is depicted in the image above. How can this matrix help project teams?

First – Spend the bulk of your time on the urgent AND important activities

The key here is to know what is most important now. What work will deliver the highest value if you do it now? I often work with developers who face the urgency of tech problems that can shut down a business until someone fixes the problem. It can be easy for them to put those problems into the category of urgent AND important activities, or the work that is in the top left block of the urgent important matrix.

And they might be in that category, depending on the staffing situation. There is no question that those problems have to be fixed. But when I talk about spending the bulk of your time on the urgent AND important activities, I’m really focusing on the project work that will drive the project to completion. Is it possible to delegate the work that will not move the project forward?

Identify the one piece of work that you want to accomplish today

I encourage each person in any organization to have a clearly defined singular focus for the day. Obviously, everyone will have many things that they need to do during the day – from meetings to email requests. Knowing the one thing that you must accomplish that will deliver the highest value is the first step. And you must understand how to best do it.

The idea of a singular focus may or may not work in your organization. From my experience, a singular focus helps ensure that you don’t get so busy with other things, that you forget what matters most.  

Second – Use your standing meeting to identify issues that can be referred elsewhere

The bottom left block in the urgent important matrix, or the work that is urgent, but not important, is work that you should delegate. This applies to both project and operations work.

For project teams, using standing meetings, each person should commit to doing the work that they have identified as the highest value work and disclose any obstacles that will likely get in the way. Ideally, the project manager can resolve those obstacles to keep team members focused on what matters.

If you are the project manager pay attention to whether the team member clearly understands the scope of the activity and how to accomplish it. When I fail to complete a task, it’s most often because I don’t really understand it clearly. Or I’m confused about the best way to accomplish it.

I have written before about standing meetings and how they can be used to improve project performance. To stay focused on the urgent AND important work, we need to find a way to quickly resolve issues or let someone else resolve them. And the standing meeting is a time when all the team members are together and can quickly share intelligence that will speed up work.

Third – Review work in the important and not urgent category and schedule it

We all have work that is important but not urgent, or that block of work that is in the top right block of the urgent important matrix. It may be mentoring others, or reading books or articles, or attending to financial housekeeping details. Decide when you plan to do that work but don’t let it get in the way of moving your project from start to finish at a reasonable pace.

This is also where checkpoint meetings come into play. That’s the time when project teams examine the remaining work and determine what batch of work will be done in the next sprint.

Fourth – Delete work that doesn’t add value to the project goals

While this item is number four on my list, I often find that it’s the easiest way to start my day. I begin by reviewing the many activities that need to be done on any one day. I then begin ruthlessly pruning back the list to the work that has the highest value and aligns with my values.

Once the work for a project has been fully identified, and as different activities are totally scoped, team members will have to decide from day to day what small tasks they need to do. Every activity can have multiple steps. I like to call them tasks – and think of them in a different way. From my experience, as I tackle a large activity, I continue to have to reexamine next steps. And sometimes, I profit from deleting some of the work. It’s just no longer important and doesn’t add value to the result.

Create a culture of focused work

Everyone can help here – from senior leaders to project managers, to people on project teams. We all must be responsible for our own ability to focus. We must be “indistractable,” as Nir Eyal calls it.

Since everyone has their own unique style, I encourage each team member to find the best way to focus on their work. It may be turning off notifications, using the Pomodoro method, or setting phone alarms to remind you to check in with yourself, and return to focusing. Or you may work better in a different setting and need to go to a coffee shop or a picnic table somewhere.

Produce results every day

To finish projects successfully, teams are best off if they pace themselves. If they can produce meaningful, high value results every day, they are on the way to a successful finish. Which gets back to why I like standing meetings. It is a time when everyone is held to a standard of accomplishing something important every day. And it’s why I like the urgent important matrix. It helps me understand what’s most important today.

If you need more project management help, check out the book for my Eight Lesson Crash Course.