The Urgent vs. Important Matrix – Handling Interruptions

The Urgent vs. Important Matrix – Handling Interruptions

As a former investment banker, I have a very, well… unique relationship with my email. For those that aren’t familiar with the life of a banking analyst – email is treated as IM, text messaging, and a pager all rolled into one, with a 24/7 expectation of response. I once had an actual nightmare about that blinking red light on my Blackberry. Accordingly, I developed somewhat of a compulsion about checking email at all hours of the day and night, an affliction I feel is shared by many in corporate America. Many of us keep our Outlook open all day and our Blackberries at hand all night, just waiting to be interrupted by that little “New Mail” popup or blinking red light. Not only is that stressful, I think it’s killing our productivity.

A study by Microsoft showed just how lethal interruptions are to productivity. The researchers taped 29 hours of people working in a typical office, and found that they were interrupted on average four times each hour. Sounds like a day at most offices. Here’s the kicker – 40% of the time, the person did not resume the task they were working on before the interruption. The more complex the task, the less likely the person was to resume working on it after an interruption. That means most of us are getting derailed from our work four times each hour, maybe more if you work in a high email traffic office.


So how do we get back on track? The answer lies in a concept called the “Urgent vs. Important Matrix“, which I was reminded of (and inspired to write this post) when I read fellow Coloradan Devin Reams‘ excellent post entitled “Instant Email is Good for Nobody” (agreed). Most of us have grown up considering “urgent” and “important” to be the same thing, but that is not always the case. An issue can be both urgent and important (a heart attack), urgent but not important (a telemarketer is calling), important but not urgent (that big project you’re working on), or neither (surfing the web). As such, we need to develop the ability to quickly identify urgent and important interruptions that need to be dealt with right now, and file the rest away to be dispatched at regular intervals when they will not interrupt us from the tasks we are focused on completing. Be particularly wary of “urgent but not important” tasks – these often masquerade as top priority items and steal attention they don’t deserve.

In Tim Ferriss’ fantastic “4-Hour Workweek” he discusses his method for handling email interruptions. Tim checks email once at 11am and once at 4pm – that’s it. It’s called batching, and it helps not only to reduce interruptions, but also decreases the time spent switching between tasks (28% of your day, according to the Microsoft study).

Since I’ve left banking, I’ve tried to turn over a new leaf in email management. I’m no Tim Ferriss, but I try to only check emails once an hour and I completely turn off the alerts on my iPhone during things like dinner, movies, and social time with friends. Not only has it made me more productive, it’s drastically reduced my stress level. Additionally, people learn that email is not a viable option for getting ahold of me instantly. If something is both urgent and important, I get phone calls, which are totally fine and welcomed. Urgent/important things get personal phone calls or face to face conversations, while non-urgent items get dropped in email boxes for handling at the appropriate time. If you can get everyone in an office or on a team working under this principle, it really does dramatically increase efficiency and decrease stress – I highly recommend it.

About the Author

Bill DAlessandroI'm the CEO at Elements Brands - a company I built from scratch that sells branded consumer products online and in national retail stores. I ship thousands of orders each month, and focus on automation, technology, and digital marketing. I write about my experience with e-commerce, product creation, and lifestyle design, with lots of personal bits thrown in. More about me.

Comments

  1. andywellis says:

    Oddly, this conceptual framework hearkens back to the time of one Adam Smith, you know, the one that wrote An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.

    As Smith wrote about the advantages to division of labor, the point he was most emphatic about concerning increased efficiency was time between tasks. He contrasted the handyman that fixes a wagon wheel, patches a roof, cleans out the gutters, etc with a worker in a pin factory that hammers pins to a point and then passes them along (he also talks about an individual going through all the steps of creating a batch of pens alone). The point being, that the person with different tasks (and thus interruptions) is far less productive than a person in a society that assigns specific and relatively continuous tasks. Standard of life for the laborer is always the principle argument in favor of the handyman because he is setting his own pace at the expense of his efficiency.

    However, in today's society the technologically engendered ADD of being tied to instant communication in a culture that expects instant response in mind crushingly stressful and leads to less productivity. I think that your point about applying filters to communication makes total sense as they have become interruptions. I've noticed personally that as I've spent more time with technology, my attention span has diminished markedly. Most things that I'm involved with nowadays aren't urgently important by nature but people's expectations have changed as to what constitutes timeliness to the degree that I allow myself to be stressed over a couple of hours. Also, I get so many emails in a day that if I don't attack them as they come in, they can be overwhelming.

    I need a break from technology

  2. Interesting read.

Trackbacks

  1. […] either. There’s been plenty of interesting research into open plan vs closed offices too. A study by Microsoft showed just how destructive interruptions can be to productivity. Here’s some commentary by […]

  2. […] either. There’s been plenty of interesting research into open plan vs closed offices too. A study by Microsoft showed just how destructive interruptions can be to productivity. Here’s some commentary by […]

  3. […] Bill Dallesandro: “A study by Microsoft showed just how lethal interruptions are to productivity. The researchers taped 29 hours of people working in a typical office, and found that they were interrupted on average four times each hour. Sounds like a day at most offices. Here’s the kicker – 40% of the time, the person did not resume the task they were working on before the interruption. The more complex the task, the less likely the person was to resume working on it after an interruption.” […]

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