Setting priorities often involves triage

Quite a few years ago, there was an engineer at our firm who would submit project work to my department, always claiming it was "number one" priority, and always evoking the name of the boss in the process (like that would get me to assign his work to someone earlier than I otherwise would have done). As we were a deadline-driven department, I kept myself aware of all the project deadlines, and I would assign work accordingly, regardless of the claims of urgency made by anyone requesting department personnel time.

I suppose, however, that this particular engineer wasn't any different than many people when faced with a problem they need (or want) addressed -- especially if they're dependent on others to solve it. Providing user support often requires judgment calls in this regard, and all problems have to be assigned (either formally or informally) some sort of priority on the neverending list of things to do.

I try to prioritize the requests I get based on urgency and repercussions of the particular problem. If a user is absolutely dead in the water, for example, and his or her billing time is being spent waiting for a computer problem to be solved, that would certainly take priority over someone requesting attention because of something that might, at best, present that user with a mild inconvenience of some sort. (Of course, many users see that mild inconvenience as a "number one" priority.)

In his book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey describes his "Time Management Matrix" in which he identifies all problems or tasks as belonging in one of four possible quadrants. Consider a square divided into four equal parts, and each of those four inner squares being identified by two different sets of criteria, one across the top and the other down the side.  All problems and tasks can be placed into one of the four squares, and none can occupy more than one. All problems and tasks can be identified as one of the following: urgent and important, not urgent but important, urgent but not important, or not urgent and not important.


Not Urgent



Quadrant One Quadrant Two


Not Important


Quadrant Three Quadrant Four

The key to remaining effective, says Covey, is to avoid all things in quadrants three and four, instead focusing on (and/or placing) all things in quadrants one and two.

A Windows wallpaper photograph of a user's dream car that keeps disappearing might seem urgent to him, but it's unimportant to both you and to the mission of the company. This is especially true if addressing the problem keeps you from focusing your efforts in one of the other two important quadrants. A display that disappears altogether, however, resulting in billable time flying out the window or a productive user sitting idle, is a problem that definitely belongs in quadrant one. Periodic maintenance and upgrades to prevent that from happening in the first place probably belong in quadrant two.

Quadrant three is an interesting one, in that it seems contradictory to suggest something is both urgent AND not important. What about a meeting that you have to attend, one for which you were asked to make some sort of presentation, you've done nothing to prepare yourself, the meeting is in one hour, but it doesn't matter one iota in the overall scheme of things? Someone else called the meeting and asked you to make the presentation, but you couldn't care less about the outcome. In this case, someone else's urgent request, which was initially unimportant to you (and still might be), just moved to quadrant one. This might also apply, by the way, if it's the boss who's throwing the hissy fit about that disappearing wallpaper, providing you with the justification and reason for putting a quadrant three (or quadrant four) task into quadrant one and to the top of the priority list. (Keeping one's sanity, after all, is both important and sometimes urgent!)

Covey's matrix, I might add, could provide a way to prioritize everything one does, whether it's job related, project related, or concerning other aspects of a person's time-spending habits. Time is indeed one's most valuable resource. We only have so much of it, no one has more than any other person, it can't be borrowed but it can be given away, and once spent, it can't be retrieved or taken back. I try to spend mine wisely, and I cringe when others try to waste what little of it I seem to have.

We all have different methods for dealing with time management issues, and mine is to prioritize based on urgency and importance. Defining those correctly and accurately in each and every instance, however, and in a manner that appeases everyone involved, is what constantly presents the challenge.