Manage those Urgent but not Important tasks successfully

Picture of old train wheels. Don't oil those sqeaky wheels. urgent but not Important tasks

Manage those Urgent but not Important tasks successfully

Stop oiling Squeaky Wheels and get on with your real job!


How you deal with those urgent, not important tasks at work?

Have you heard of the Time Management Matrix? It is sometimes called the Covey Quadrants or Covey Priority Matrix, though it was actually developed by USA President Dwight Eisenhower. He used as a way of prioritising all the different things he had to deal with, based on their importance and their urgency.

Many years later, Stephen Covey popularised this simple model in his enormously successful book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. That’s where I first discovered it, as I’m sure many others did.  A while ago I wrote in more detail about this simple tool, in particular explaining the four quadrants and the distinction between ‘important’ and ‘urgent’. I suggest reading that article before you read on, if you haven’t already.

Time Management Matrix

To summarise this matrix/tool briefly, activities and tasks belong in Quadrant 1 if they are both critical to your role (important) and need to be done very soon (urgent). You might think of important items as those that relate directly to your position description. For instance, if you’re responsible for pays, getting the payroll done is an important part of your job, and it’s urgent if tomorrow is payday.

To-do list items belong in Quadrant 2 if they are important but not urgent, at least not yet urgent. Adjusting pay records would fit into this camp if you’re still two or three weeks out from the next payday. It’s something that must happen, but not necessarily right now.

Activities or tasks in Quadrant 3 are those urgent but not important tasks. Or as I like to put it, activities or tasks, masquerading as important because of their urgency. Attending a meeting of questionable value would fit into this category. The type of meeting where there is no Agenda and one where you could easily just have gotten a copy of the minutes.

Quadrant 4 activities/tasks are neither important, nor urgent, and are best ignored until you have some downtime. Reading through all those email newsletters you have ‘piled’ up is probably one of these.

As I mentioned, my previous article explains the quadrants in more depth.

Urgent, Not Important Tasks

For this article, I want to focus on an aspect of activities or tasks in Quadrant 3, the ‘urgent but not important’ stuff. In my opinion, this is the most important quadrant from a time management perspective because it’s very frequently the one that people find themselves getting caught up in, sometimes for days at a time. Managing this quadrant often has the most potential to find some extra time in your week.

The squeaky wheel

Imagine this scenario. I bet you can relate to it. Someone pops their head into your office or calls you and asks if you could email them a document that they need to work on. Fair enough. ‘Sure thing,’ you say. ‘I’ll get that to you in a few minutes’. You stop working on the important report you’ve committed time to, locate the document and send it on. It took 3 to 5 minutes of your time … no big deal, right?

This is a classic ‘urgent not important task‘. A Quadrant 3 situation.

But let’s give this a bit more thought. You realise you had already sent that document to your entire team via Microsoft Teams Group Chat a few days ago. Then the penny drops that this team member doesn’t like using Teams so has a habit of asking for things to be emailed directly to him. Then you remember that, having anticipated that, you did email him at the time. But now he has either lost that email or couldn’t be bothered searching for it. He had probably figured it was quicker for him to bother you than find it himself.

The hard truth is, this guy is a squeaky wheel.

You try to shake all this aside and return to your more important task. But now you find it hard to refocus your attention. To reset, you go and make a cup of tea, which includes a quick chat with another colleague about the state of the footy tipping competition, and before you know it 15 minutes has gone by. All to find a single document!

And it’s not just that. Squeaky wheels tend to be repeat offenders. If you were to add up all the 15-minute interruptions from this person and others with similar habits, you’d soon find you were wasting a couple of hours a week, at a minimum, dealing with their Quadrant 3 needs. Multiply that by all the other team members the squeaky wheels are affecting and the time really starts to add up!

These urgent requests for information or documents that were readily available or had been previously sent end up costing everybody far more time than the minute or two ‘favour’ that they see their request as.

A better approach

So what should you do to better manage urgent but not Important tasks, in situations like this? How can you address them?  Well firstly, consider the old Confucius saying. (It probably wasn’t Confucius, but nevertheless…) The saying goes: “If you give a man a fish, he will eat for the day. But if you teach him how to fish, he’ll eat for a lifetime.”  In other words, don’t continually oil the squeaky wheel by simply doing what they ask. ‘Teach them to fish’, that is, by finding a way to encourage them to find the document or solve the problem themselves.

To continue our example, if you know you have already sent the document, instead of fulfilling their request, remind them where they can find it themselves. In the longer run, it might be worth the investment of your time to go back to their desk with them and coach them through the process of finding it. ie, how to find things in MS Teams Chat or how to search for emails.  That is, teach them how to fish.

Another option is to not respond immediately to the request. Try a response such as, ‘I’m just working on something at the moment. Let me finish this and I will come back to you.’ Later, you might flick them a quick email or drop by their office to remind them that you had already shared the document in a Teams chat the other day. Then leave it with them.

The clever part of this approach is that you train them that coming to you is not going to be the quickest solution. Unless their need is truly urgent, they’re going to have to learn how to resolve these types of  things themselves. Once they’ve learnt that, they won’t have to come to you next time anyway!

In closing

I hope these two examples show you how you might deal with those squeaky wheels without simple giving up and solving their problems for them. The key is to train them to help themselves, rather than just relying on you because that seems easy. I’ve seen numerous examples where people have tried this and it has worked!

To keep this brief, I won’t cover some of the other traps that I see people consistently falling for that would fit into the urgent, not important tasks or activities or Quadrant 3 . I cover this in much more detail in my Personal Productivity Training.

The main thing to remember is that time saved by reducing the number of ‘urgent not important tasks’ or activities you have to deal with is time you can instead spend getting your real job done, that is, on those pesky ‘important but not urgent‘ Quadrant 2 tasks.


Geoff Prior – Lingford Consulting, May, 2024

Workload & Email Management Trainer & Coach

No Comments

Post A Comment