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Time management masterclass: Setting priorities

Creating a weekly 'priorities matrix' can drastically improve your time management, explains NHS performance coach Sarah Christie

I am going to introduce you to a model which, if practised each week, will have a huge impact on how you spend your time.

Using this technique, you should get much more done in much less time and you will develop clarity and focus on what needs to be done by you and by others. As you get more done your confidence and well-being will increase and you should be caught up in a much more productive cycle.

Entering the matrix

This proven model is called the Priorities Matrix and was developed by Dr Stephen Covey and features in his book, The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People. It's a great model and one that I use myself.

The first thing I want you to do is set aside 20 minutes on Monday morning. Now list all the things that need to be done that week. Do not attempt to put them in any order; just list them as they appear in your thoughts. Taking each task in turn, ask yourself: ‘is this task important and urgent?'

What this really means is does the task have to be done today and can it only be done by you? If the answer is yes, write ‘important and urgent' next to it. If it is important but does not have to be done today, write ‘important but not urgent'.

If the task is not important but urgent, write ‘not important and urgent' next to it. This means that the task is urgent for someone else, for example someone who is disorganised and has left the task until the last minute and is now trying to get you to do it, but it is not important in terms of helping you achieve your goals for the week or longer term. If the completion of the task will benefit someone else more than you, it is essential that you delegate it or push it down the list of your priorities for the week.

Finally, if the task is neither important to you (in terms of your goals) nor urgent (it doesn't need to be done today), you can either drop it altogether or place it at the very end of your list.

Now highlight in yellow, all the items marked ‘important and urgent' and rewrite them on a new sheet of paper. These are your top priorities for the day or the next day and are probably things you have been putting off until the very last minute. Get these things done as your top priority.

Creating a crisis mindset

What you are actually doing is operating in a crisis mindset and not actually working effectively. That sense of urgency you feel may have always helped you get the job done in the past but also causes you stress all the time you have not completed it and what if another crisis occurs unexpectedly? It is extremely risky to leave things until the last moment, because you never know what might happen on the day.

What you must aim for is the majority of tasks on your list being the ones marked with ‘important and not urgent' next to them. If you have any on your list now, highlight them in a different colour. Then rewrite them on the reverse of your ‘important and urgent' piece of paper.

If you have plenty of tasks which are very important but do not have to be done today, that is the ideal situation, because then you can begin to plan your week and approach your work in a systematic and productive manner.

Developing a weekly habit

Now open your paper diary, or electronic schedule at the appropriate week. Firstly, make sure that all your fixed appointments such as regular meetings and patient appointment times are shown. Now look for the gaps in your diary. Make sure that you focus on getting your ‘important and urgent' tasks completed first. If there are many of them, just schedule these and ignore the other items. If there are only a few, which is usually the case, then diarise them and then schedule just one or two activities from your important but not urgent list.

Initially you will over-estimate how much you can achieve in a week and under-estimate how long something will take. Begin slowly and focus on achieving a smaller amount. Then you can adjust as you learn how quickly (or not) you can get things done.

You do not have to get through everything on your ‘important but not urgent' list in one week. But you do need to be aware of the deadlines of each activity and ensure you plan them in accordingly.

As for the tasks in ‘urgent but not important', you shouldn't be doing these at all. If possible, delegate them to someone else or ask a colleague to help you. In future, you will say no to someone who is trying to get you to do a task on their behalf, if you have an already full diary. As you know, the ‘not important and not urgent' tasks, which are usually escapist activities, should not be done at all.

Begin your new habit now and commit to scheduling tasks into your diary for the week. You'll be delighted with the results as long as you are realistic about what you can achieve.

Sarah Christie is an author and performance coach who leads management and leadership programmes for clinicians and non-medical managers. Her website is

Time management masterclass