The Importance-Difficulty Matrix
Updated: Jun 5, 2022
When you try to reach a goal, do you want to stop wasting your time doing the wrong tasks in the wrong order? Or, focus too much energy on the wrong tasks and not enough time on the tasks that are most important?
If you want a simple framework to help clarify how to prioritize all your tasks, then the Importance-Difficulty Matrix will be extremely useful to you. It can be applied to work, life, big goals, and small goals alike.
After going through each step of the matrix, we can not only make a priority to-do list, but also recognize potential themes or subgroups that bring clarity and efficiency to our overarching goal.
Before we start, we must be clear about the main goal.
In this example exercise, I’ll use my business as a simple example. Keep in mind that it’s only an example!
My goal To provide unique, high-quality service to my target students while also enjoying my work.
(Here is an example of the blank matrix format)
STEP 1 – Tasks
Make a list of the tasks you want to accomplish in a week, month, quarter, year, or whatever your timeframe is. 7-14 tasks are a rough number to shoot for.
Tip: Don’t overthink the tasks. If you want to add or delete a task later, you can choose to do so, no problem.
STEP 2 – Importance
For each task, decide how important it is. If it’s very important, put it on the right side of the matrix. If it’s a less important task, put it on the left side. Arrange all the tasks left to right in a way that shows their importance in comparison to each other. Tasks that are moderately important will be somewhere in the middle.
Tip: Don’t overthink this! You can change it later.
STEP 3 – Difficulty
Decide how difficult each task on the matrix is. By difficult, we mean difficult due to time, money, ability, motivation, or anything. If it’s extremely difficult, shift it to the very top. If it’s pretty easy, shift it to the bottom. Arrange each task to correspond in relation to its difficulty to the other tasks. Tasks that are moderately difficult will be somewhere between the top and bottom.
Tip: Once again, don’t overthink this! You can change it later.
STEP 4 – Make 3 Sections
Draw two diagonal lines from the top right quadrant down to the bottom left quadrant. This should split the whole matrix into three basic sections. Doing this helps us visualize the separation between future dreams (top left) and priorities we absolutely must take action on now (bottom right). The middle sections may be a mixture of the two categories.
STEP 5 – Label 4 Quadrants
Label each quadrant with the following words:
Top Left: Luxury (This means it is something that would probably be amazing, but something to focus on in the future if it’s possible)
Top Right: Strategic (This means it is important, but probably difficult and something to focus on for the long term instead of immediately)
Bottom Left: Easy Wins (This means you might as well do it since it’s easy)
Bottom Right: High ROI (return on investment) (This means that taking action on this task will be worth it and will have a big impact. It’s the highest priority, and should be done immediately, soon, or in an ongoing way.)
At this point, take a few moments to look at the placement of all your tasks on the matrix. Feel free to adjust any of the tasks in whatever way feels true for you since you now have a bigger visual picture. The goal here is to portray the relationships of importance and difficulty in an accurate way. Keep in mind that there is probably no “exactly perfect” placement, but the hope is to get a general visualization of things.
STEP 6 – Analyze & Categorize
Now that we have a clear map laid out on the matrix, we can see the big picture or our priorities for the present and the future.
At this point, try to categorize different tasks into groups in order to see the larger themes that can give you a clearer overall perspective. There isn’t any exact formula for how to do this, so just do it in a way that works for you.
For my example, I did the following:
Red: Long-term potential, but no need to think about it right now.
Pink: Good things to do regularly, but I shouldn’t focus too much on them at the expense of the highest priority tasks.
Blue: Things I want to take steady steps toward now, but as longer-term goals.
Green: Things I’ll continue doing or take action on this week.
Yellow: Essential things that I will focus my time and energy on.
Red Circles: My very top priorities that are essential to my business.
STEP 7 – Refine & Repeat
Our matrix is finished and it’s time to take action! However, perhaps one of the high-priority tasks itself seems like a very big goal. If it seems too difficult to know where to start with that very important task, then you can use that task as the main goal of a completely new matrix. In fact, this process can be repeated over and over until the most important tasks are broken down into small enough tasks that actually allow us to take realistic action.
This Importance-Difficulty Matrix can be used in work, life, big goals, and small goals alike. Doing it alone can be fast and useful, but doing it with coworkers, friends, or your partner can also prove to be even more useful because it allows for broader perspective and a viewpoint that represents the desires of the whole team or partnership. I hope it helps you prioritize for effectiveness and success!
Questions to consider:
How can I make difficult tasks easier? For example, do I have an inaccurate understanding of what the task is or what it should be? And could I simplify it or reframe it in order to make it 50% or 80% easier to accomplish?
How can I delegate certain tasks to other people? For example, delegate it to a coworker, an online assistant, or make it automated?
How can I create a schedule that prioritizes my highest priorities while also steadily helps me reach my longer-term goals?
Here is a simple printable PDF to complete your own matrix.
One of the sources of this concept can be found at: https://designthinkingagile.com/difficulty-importance-matrix/
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