Dr. Nancy Wayne

Scientist, Educator & Speaker

Having Trouble Prioritizing? Use ‘The Matrix’ to Sort it Out!

You are a very busy person with a lot of responsibilities at work (not to mention what is going on at home). Everything seems to need your immediate attention. You spread yourself so thin that very little gets done in an efficient and effective manner. You are drowning in work and cannot see a clear path to getting through that ever-increasing To Do List. Sound familiar?

There is a very simple and effective way to prioritize your work – the Prioritization Matrix.

This prioritization approach was first brought to my attention in an article published by Drs. Jeremy Boss and Susan Eckert in Science Magazine in 2004 (1). It turns out that there are a fair number of prioritization matrix templates available, from a fairly complicated set of instructions from the Minnesota Department of Health (2) to fairly simple apps that can be downloaded on your electronic devices (example shown in reference 3).

A simple and effective priority matrix To Do Quadrant that focuses on your needs at work is shown below. This was constructed with academics in mind, but applies to employees at many different institutions and businesses.

1. Important for Career and Urgent 2. Important for Career but Not Urgent
3. Not Important for Career but Urgent 4. Not Important for Career and Not Urgent

The idea is to avoid using linear To Do Lists where everything is given equal weight. Divide up the things you need to do into one of four quadrants – realizing that some items will change quadrants as your situation changes. Your top priority is for those activities that are both important for your career and need urgent attention, followed by items that are important for your career but not urgent, then not important for your career but need urgent attention, and finally not important for your career and not urgent.

So let’s fill in some examples from the life of a typical research academic:

1. Important for Career and Urgent

Complete grant application and submit by next week’s deadline!!!

2. Important for Career but Not Urgent

Complete manuscript and submit to journal!!

3. Not Important for Career but Urgent

Write report for administrative committee and submit before next week’s meeting!

4. Not Important for Career and Not Urgent

Clean office and purge old paperwork.

You may be tempted to clean your office (lowest priority) instead of working on your grant application (highest priority). Bad idea! That type of displacement activity will lead to unnecessary stress as the grant deadline gets closer. [Displacement activity is defined as activity that seems inappropriate to the context, arising unconsciously when a conflict between antagonistic urges cannot be resolved: for example, grant writing versus office cleaning.]

The following is a set of recommendations to help you get through your day in an efficient manner so that you can be more effective in prioritizing your activities [from Boss and Eckert (1) combined with my own advice]:

  • Understand your goals, and what is most important for advancement in your field.
  • Split complex tasks into manageable bits.
  • Do not get caught up browsing internet news and social media at work – this is a common modern displacement activity that wastes precious time.
  • Committee work is an important part of expected service in academia. Make sure that the committee meetings have a clear agenda and set of goals, with action items that are followed up on and (mostly) completed. Do not waste your time on committees that are poorly run, inefficient, and do not make progress.
  • Limit the amount of socializing you do at work. Although it is important to network, make sure that lunch or coffee with a colleague has clear goals and set of agenda items.
  • When there is a tight deadline, do not get distracted: close your office door, work at home, turn off your email, etc.
  • Prioritize your activities using the matrix approach shown above.



  1. Boss J and Eckert S (2004). Academic Scientists at Work: Where’d My Day Go?http://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2004/04/academic-scientists-work-whered-my-day-go
  1. Prioritization Matrix, Minnesota Department of Health.  http://www.health.state.mn.us/divs/opi/qi/toolbox/prioritizationmatrix.html
  1. Priority Matrix for iPad – Manage Effectively. By Appfluence LLC.


One comment on “Having Trouble Prioritizing? Use ‘The Matrix’ to Sort it Out!

  1. gregorymilleris
    July 1, 2016

    Reblogged this on THE OTHER NETWORK WRITER'S ROOM and commented:
    Write priorities?

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