Skip to main content

Introduction to university study: Priority matrices

On this page:

“US President Dwight Eisenhower ... reportedly said, ‘What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.’"

John Caunt,  How to Organise Yourself

One way to prioritise your work is to use a matrix. This page introduces two related matrices - the Eisenhower matrix, which considers urgency and importance; and the Action-Priority matrix which considers effort and impact. They can be extremely useful when you feel overwhelmed by the number of tasks you have to complete.


The Eisenhower Matrix

When dealing with a large workload, it is important to spend time on the important activities, not just the urgent ones. If you find it difficult to decide which category a task falls into, they are defined here:


Exclamation mark icon

Important tasks

Those that are directly related to achieving your goals. At university these are usually related to assessed assignments. Sometimes these are long-term and are mistakenly given less priority despite their importance.

Urgent icon

Urgent tasks

Those that require immediate attention - often due to pressure from other people and often related to their goals, not yours! Not completing such tasks can have immediate consequences and so they tend to get more attention.


Most tasks are not important AND urgent but fall into one of the other three categories in the Eisenhower matrix below:

  URGENT NOT URGENT
IMPORTANT

Important and urgent

Important but not urgent

NOT IMPORTANT

Urgent but not important

Not important and not urgent

 

Once each of your tasks (or stages of a task) is allocated to one of these quadrants (being realistic and honest with yourself), you can deal with them as follows:

  URGENT NOT URGENT
IMPORTANT

Do it first (now!)

Decide when to do it later on.

Allocate time in your diary.

NOT IMPORTANT

Only do it when above work is done

If it isn't uni work, can you ask someone else to do it?

Ignore it for now

Or ditch it completely if you are really pushed.


The Action-Priority Matrix

These are similar to Eisenhower matrices but the criteria are different. They prioritise using impact and effort required. They are designed to help you spend more time on high-value activities that keep you on track to achieve your most important goals.

Matrix showing high impact, low effort tasks are "Quick Wins"; high impact, high effort tasks are "Major projects"; low impact, low effort tasks are "Fill ins" and low impact; high effort tasks are "Thankless tasks".

 

Star icon

Quick wins (High impact, low effort)

These tasks are the best ones to start with as you will get the most value out of relatively little effort. They are a great way of staying motivated as you get the instant gratification of completing the tasks. Some shorter assessed assignments come into this category as can some sub-tasks for longer assignments.

Spanner icon

Major projects (High impact, high effort)

Whilst they give great value, major projects also take a lot of time and effort. They should be second in your priorities. Be wary of filling ALL your time with them at the expense of quick wins. Breaking them down into smaller tasks that can be moved into the quick win category can help. Your most highly-weighted assignments will come into this category (they are supposed to require significant effort after all).

fill icon

Fill ins (low impact, low effort)

These are tasks that require little effort but their outcomes are minimal. They tend to be organisational, housekeeping or preparatory tasks. If possible, delegate them, but if this isn't possible or suitable, then do them after more important tasks have been completed or when you are not as alert (later at night for example).

Cross icon

Thankless tasks (low impact, high effort)

These tasks are potentially not worth your time and you should consider dropping them if possible. Think carefully about assigning things to this category though. It may seem like non-assessed assignments would fit in here but these are often preparing you for the actual assessments. Doing them can make what would otherwise be a major project into something more approaching a quick win. Having said that, if you are under real time pressure then working on high-weighted assessments would always be a more appropriate use of your time.