prioritize tasks

You’ve got to complete a 10-page paper, study for an exam, run 4 miles, and go to work today, but you don’t know how to get everything done in a timely manner. In these hectic situations, your best friend is the Urgent/Important Matrix, first printed in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. This matrix helps you prioritize your tasks based on how important they are versus how urgent they are. Don’t worry, I’ll explain.

Related: Reduce Procrastination by Developing a Productive Lifestyle

The Urgency vs. Importance Matrix helps you categorize, or rather, triage, your daily tasks. Of course, when it comes to life or death, replacing a kidney is just as important as mending a gun shot wound. But one of them is clearly more urgent in this moment than the other. Therefore, you’ve got to triage your tasks like a plane crash on ER.

To quote U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, “What is important is seldom urgent, and what is urgent is seldom important.” Going pee is normally pretty urgent, but it’s the urgency that makes you feel like it is important. If you can separate your tasks between importance and urgency, you can organize your day like a pro. Here’s the typical look of the matrix:

urgency vs importance chart

And this is how you can apply it to your daily college life.

First, you should make a list of everything you will likely do during the day, from the crucial tasks to the inconsequential. Your list might look something like this:

  • Lunch w/ Friends
  • Read Acts 1-3 of Romeo and Juliet
  • Work Out
  • Meet Michelle for Coffee
  • Literature Class (2 hours)
  • Spanish Class (2 hours)
  • Memorize Spanish Vocabulary for Exam
  • Begin Sociology Paper (due in 1 week)
  • Upload Facebook Pictures

Next, you can make life easier by ranking each item’s importance, with the top being most important. Maybe it is more important to memorize your Spanish vocabulary than to actually go to class, and perhaps reading R&J isn’t crucial because you read it in high school. Your ranking might look something like this:

  • Memorize Spanish Vocabulary for Tomorrow’s Exam
  • Spanish Class (2 hours)
  • Lunch w/ Friends
  • Read Acts 1-3 of Romeo and Juliet
  • Work Out
  • Literature Class (2 hours)
  • Begin Sociology Paper (due in 1 week)
  • Upload Facebook Pictures
Images courtesy of Al Abut and Baird’s CMC

Now you can determine how urgent each task is based on their timeframe. Perhaps you don’t need a lot of time to work on your sociology paper, and it’s not due for a whole week, so it’s really not that urgent.

urgency importance matrix

Now, you can easily see that it is both urgent and important that you study your Spanish and that you attend Literature class. It’s clearly not important or urgent that you upload your Facebook pictures or read Romeo & Juliet (since you read it in high school). At this point, you have to contend with boxes 2 and 3, determining how to proceed.

For box 2, you’ve got time, right? So here’s the trick: schedule it out. This is the box that makes you feel happy and accomplished.

As for box 3, these things are inevitable distractions that are not highly important. These are the things you do if there’s time. If you’ve scheduled a workout during lunchtime, but your friends come by to get lunch together, the only way to stick to your matrix is to say no. Hey, maybe you can even convince them to work out with you instead! If you haven’t finished memorizing your vocabulary words by Spanish class, you just don’t go.

I didn’t say it was incredibly simple, but separating urgent tasks from important tasks can be a very useful way to get things done when you’re in a time crunch. You can organize your quadrant however you see fit, but the biggest thing to remember is that urgency and importance are two very different things!