The Marketing Analytics Intersect

How do you figure out what you should work on next?

In the avalanche of emails, requests from people who walk by, improvement feedback your boss gave you last week in your one-on-one, your CMO’s latest urgent request, demands placed on you by your HR team, and things you want to do because you are an overachiever… How do you ensure your precious attention is optimally allocated?

I’m a believer in Inbox Zero—I try to get down to maybe one or two pending things as I end the day. This past Friday was full of back-to-back meetings from 0800 – 1800 hrs, which meant I was up until 0145 hrs getting to Inbox Zero so I’d have a fighting chance of spending some peaceful time with my family on Saturday.

I’m sure you are shaking your head, thinking “omg—that does not scale.” And you are right: it doesn’t. It’s a great way to maintain your weight, though. :)

All kidding aside, it is critical to have a simple framework you can use to think through your entire to-do list.

Let me share one that I use to stay afloat.

The things that steal most of our productive hours tend to be those that are deemed urgent.


The sense of urgency could be because of where the task/request came from. It could be because a fire broke out somewhere. It could be because your professional mortal enemy is also working on it. Regardless, the nature of the word causes the task to jump to the top of your focus.

Anything that rises to the top because of urgency automatically adds stress to your life, which is a massive bummer.

Urgency, of course, does not equal importance.

importance urgency

Teaching ourselves to recognize the importance of any task is absolutely, well, important!

For a whole lot of reasons, a request for data X or meeting Y from your boss is urgent. It is often not important if you step back and consider your work, your team, and your company (in that order).

Establishing importance is a lot more qualitative than you might imagine. When assessing the importance of any task, you’ll ask yourself questions like:

How aligned is this task with my job responsibilities? How high is its priority based on the goals my boss has set for me for this quarter? What will be the incremental impact if I complete task A vs. task B? How much revenue will completing this task deliver as opposed to the other one? Is this task solving for ego – anyone’s – or solving for an actual problem I can identify? How likely is it that the CFO will pick up the phone and call me if I deprioritize this task?

You catch my drift.

I’m sure you have your own methods for identifying importance (reply back with your favorites that I missed above).

What’s important is that you don’t let urgency become the runaway train that drags you over the cliff.

When I have to make a choice, here’s how I use these two dimensions to reorder my to-do list.

importance urgency ranked

You can see my values in action in the choices I've made.

If you want to rank urgency second and importance third, that is OK. Make an explicit choice. Then, monitor success or failure over time. Tweak your ranking based on the lessons you learn.

For a long time, these two dimensions were all I needed. They had a big impact on my personal professional work (books, blog, startup) and my professional-professional work (SGI, DirecTV, Intuit).

A decade or so (!) into my post-MBA career, as I accumulated more responsibility and my life became more complicated, I realized there was one other dimension I needed to consider: Impact.

importance urgency impact

Part of the blue circle is a pinch of “what’s the impact of this task?”—but my discovery was that it is not enough.

Hence, I’ve pulled impact into its own circle and given it more meaning and gravitas.

My definition of this green circle is: What is the grand impact of the task seeking my attention?

When assessing the grand impact of any task, the questions you’ll ask yourself are:

Is this a long-term impact task or a short-term impact task? Is this task helping fix the root cause, or just putting on a Band-Aid? Will this task involve me learning something new or is it same old, same old (leveraging your existing strengths)?

In each instance, the former moves the task up the list, while the latter moves it down.

I love the concept of grand impact because it involves more thought, more attention, a moment of reflection with an eye out to the horizon rather than locked on the pressure from importance and urgency.

Oh, one more thing. When you consider grand impact, where relevant, think about something you rarely do in a professional context: Will it make me happy?

Sometimes there will be things you want to do, things that make you smile as you do them. On the rarest of occasions, things will bring you joy. Move them up the list whenever you can. The grand impact includes the impact a task has on you. Think about it consciously.

I’m writing this newsletter rather than finalizing a presentation I’m giving tomorrow afternoon. It is an important presentation. Yet, this newsletter leapt to the top of my to-do list because it brings me joy.

It is rare that you can work for happiness. Still, give it active consideration. You never know when you can steal an hour to do something for you.

Now that we have all three dimensions, here’s the influence of each as I order my to-do list.

importance urgency impact ranked

Again, you might have a different rank order. I was having a hard time between 5 and 4 (it felt like they should be flipped compared to what you see above). I encourage you to actively think about the rank order and create your own.

Or, just print the one above and stick it in your office/cubicle as a handy reminder.

Bottom line: It is easy to let Aunt Urgency rule your lizard brain. It took me a while to realize that I should consider three dimensions. My system is not perfect—you’ll note that there is a lot of qualitative judgement involved , and I still end up working very long hours. But, as I do that I’m more actively considering urgency, importance and impact. It helps. I hope it helps you.


PS: Free bonus lesson. Working hard and working smart are not the same thing.

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