Back in the late 1980s I took a job as a policy analyst in a Cabinet Secretariat. It was a small unit and I was given charge of reviewing the proposals from six or seven departments and agencies and make recommendations to Cabinet. I was also expected to participate in team activities and provide some training in policy development to my clients. It was a lot of work and after a few months I found my desk swamped with assignments and projects, many with impending deadlines.
A lot of people in that position know exactly what to do. Knuckle down and work late. Take stuff home on weekends. Try to get some other analyst to take on some of your assignments. Plead for more time or less work. None of those options appealed to me or were feasible in any practical way.
I was being paid well to carry out analysis so I decided to analyze my work flow.
I soon discovered that not all work is created equal. However, it is not a simple matter to figure out how to prioritize things on a single evaluative scale. That’s when I discovered the grid.
Whenever a piece of work came in I determined whether it was important or not important, urgent or not urgent. Importance was a measure of how much impact completing the task would have on my overall work goals, on the departments involved, on the objectives of the government and, finally, on who had sponsored the task (power always has to be taken into account). Once you look at things that way you soon discover that a lot of work simply isn’t important. People expect you to do it — for example read and comment on their paper on xyz, but if you don’t nothing will actually happen.
Then there is urgency. Some things are urgent because of the impending deadline. Some are urgent because sooner completion will reduce negative impacts for you or other people. Some things go on forever with no particular deadline. You can do it when you get around to it.
So some things were urgent and important — it generally amounted to ten to twenty percent of the work and that was what I worked on first every day. Then there was urgent but not important. Those were little tasks I’d work on when I needed a break or right after lunch when my energy was low. If a deadline passed without getting it done, it went into the trash.
Important but not urgent jobs were set to one side until they became urgent; that moved them to the top of the pile.
Then there was not urgent and not important. I never did those unless my boss or a close colleague specifically asked me about them (that made them important). They were about 50% of the work I got.
By cutting my workload in half and paying attention to what was important and urgent, I met every goal that was ever set for me, got the maximum executive bonus every year and made everyone who counted happy. And I almost never had to work longer than my regular hours. Which made me happy.
And that’s ten minutes.