The Time/Utility Matrix for Prioritizing What to Learn

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The Time/Utility Matrix for Prioritizing What to Learn
Anneke Zwart, Moderator
Today’s world has plenty of learning opportunities available. Although learning is essential, the presence of so many learning options also makes it difficult to choose the right and most relevant material. Even more if we realize that we spend only a very small percentage of working time on knowledge development.

To help identify and select the right learning tools/materials/opportunities, Marc Zao-Sanders provides a useful tool for prioritizing the skills and knowledge to be learned and for deciding when you should do so. It is really a time management approach applied to learning and is called: Time-Utility Analysis. The model can be used on a personal basis, but also across teams, departments or entire organizations.


So, how does time-utility analysis work?
A time-utility analysis is similar to a cost-benefit analysis, where Cost vs. Benefits are replaced by Time vs. Utility. Time will be the time to learn the specific skill or information (displayed on the vertical axis); Utility represents the likelihood of using the desired skill (displayed on the horizontal axis). This results in four quadrants in a 2 x 2 matrix.
The following quadrants and learning advices are then the outcome:
  1. SCHEDULE THE TIME TO LEARN THE SKILL: Where both time and utility of learning the skill are high.
  2. DECIDE WHETHER YOU NEED TO LEARN IT: These are cases in which it costs a lot of time to learn the skill, while the utility is low. For this reason, it is important to think and probably reconsider the need to actually learn this specific skill.
  3. LEARN IT RIGHT AWAY: This represent the cases in which the utility of learning the skill is high, whereas the time to learn it is low.
  4. LEARN IT AS CHANCES ARISE: This is the outcome in case of low utility but also low time needed to learn the skill.
When Time-Utility analysis is used, you need to combine the analysis with your own opinions and experience. Imposing your own opinions and experience helps you to further narrow down the extensive list of learning opportunities.
I think in a time in which time for learning and knowledge development at work is so scarce, the tool described above is useful to prioritize learning needs.

You can use this approach just for yourself, or across a team, department, even your entire company. Since nowadays you don’t have much time to learn, you should learn to make the most of the time you have available.
Source: Zao-Sanders, M. (2017) “A 2x2 Matrix to Help You Prioritize the Skills to Learn Right Now”, HBR September 2017
 

 
On Nr. 2. Avoid Missed Opportunity
OSHUN, GRACE OKAIMA , Member
I have a problem with No. 2 which is, "Decide whether you need to learn it". That is because of my belief that no knowledge is wasted. Even though one may not find immediate use for that skill, it could come handy one day soon.
Editor: You have a point in that any knowledge might be of use one day. However, this matrix is building on the time management assumption that there is an infinite amount of knowledge to learn but each human being has only a limited amount of time.
 

 
Advice versus Explanation
Arunas Beksta, Member
I see this matrix as tool explaining one aspect of making choices.
Note that this tool is not providing advice WHAT to choose, but HOW we choose.
For example if I need to draw a stickman on the computer, I can choose CorelDRAW or Paint. Most of us will choose Paint, not CorelDRAW despite the fact that CorelDRAW could be more useful in the future. Here we have a problem with value definition versus time to learn.
 

 
Time Management for Planning Education
Steven Cooke, Member
Interesting application of the Time Management matrix for planning education.
I was hoping for a more helpful, programmed approach to defining fundamentals over "add-ons". While "no learning is wasted" (@OSHUN, GRACE OKAIMA ) the point is to maximize the time spent in training/education for the most career progress/growth.
 

 
What if we Consider Two Things
Alan, Member
You use this matrix to describe the situation what we should do when we have time. Obviously the best one is that choice that will produce more utility.
But if we considered two things, the time is the sum of times of two things, the utility is the sum of utilities of two things, how should we then schedule our plan? How much time should we spend on it?
That's an interesting question which includes game theory and utility theory and I think this could apply to management.
I think the most important thing is that we should have a formula to measure the utility of individual choice, then make a choice where the utility of the choice is maximum.
 

 
Covey's Time Management Grid or the Eisenhower Box
Prof Putr, Member
While the 2x2 is sometimes called the "Harvard 2x2" because of its frequent use in classes and cases, this particular example isn't much different from Stephen Covey's Time Management Grid found in Stephen Covey,7 Habits of Highly Effective People, 1994, which is also called The Eisenhower Box. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th US President and has been quoted as saying “What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.” which led to the creation of the Eisenhower Box, a version of which is shown here. As far as I can tell, Mr. Zao-Sanders did not cite either.
Editor: Indeed this matrix is clearly a version of Eisenhower's Matrix, that's why this discussion is taking place in the competence center about Time Management.
 

 
Develop an Attitude for Learning
MUNI DAVE, Member
The first question is how to develop an attitude, urge for learning? If you have such urge, then this matrix is definitely useful.
It is up to management to develop an attitude in every employee to learn new techniques, new skills, new knowledge. For that, management has to allow employees some free time from routine work. Those who have this urge, should encourage him/her to allow this.
 

 
So Much to Learn, but Limited Time Available
Jaap de Jonge, Editor
The "Time/Utility Matrix for Prioritizing What to Learn" is one tool you can use to cope with the challenge that there is so much to learn, but you have limited time available for learning.
💡Another instrument you can use for this challenge is actually… 12manage.com. This management learning and development platform enables you to RAPIDLY lookup and learn ONLY WHAT you need to know AT THE TIME you need to know it (on demand). Also it FOCUSES on management approaches, so you don't waste any time on useless stuff (there is little "noise").
💡Our management search app is a very specific, practical tool you may want to use for this.
Please excuse me for such shameless advertising.
 

 
Practicing Time Management
HARWINDAR SINGH, Member
Given the 2x2 Zao Sanders Matrix (and other similar ones) how does one apply this on a daily basis? Some thoughts are:
  1. To convince yourself that a block of time is needed to learn, consider this: If time is the most valuable resource we have, do we love ourselves enough to give ourselves a "gift" of at least half hour of learning each day?
  2. In deciding what to learn, think about what excites you. I have used relationships of the cosmos (which I am fascinated about) to create business models that worked like a charm.
  3. Relates to structured learning
  4. Just because you have your daily dose of learning, don't let it stop you from mopping up more knowledge and ideas from an airplane or hotel magazine as a top up - the icing on your knowledge cake.
  5. I suspect personal live, but also teams can be transformed through this. For teams - what if we have a periodic brainstorming session each week?
 

 
Time Management Applied to Learning
srinivas, Member
It is an interesting topic. If we consider a focused period of work for say 1˝ hour (since generally speaking one cannot focus more than 90 minutes at a stretch) then I think learning, creative value delivery and quality of experience go together in that span of 90 minutes.
I think an integrated matrix which considers the learning, value delivery and quality of experience view points will be more useful since we are entering an era where repeated jobs are going to be replaced by artificial intelligence.
 

 
Law of Illich
KOEHL Maryse, Member
According to the Law of Pareto: 20% of the allocated time to a task generates 80% of the obtained result and 80% of the allocated time to a task generates 20% of the obtained result.
According to the Law of Illich, once a certain performance’s threshold is passed, your efficiency decreases. Therefore concentration on a task has to be limited in time until a certain limit. Time is a variable that impacts the efficiency in the process of learning independently of the profile of learners.
 

 
Time Management for Planning Education
Steven Cooke, Member
The idea of a matrix for decision-making is very useful. However, simplified to an extreme a tool looses its utility.

One of the best resources for education/training/advancement that I have ever seen was developed by BP for their internal use.
It is based on the listing of EVERY job in the company – from a cleaner to the CEO. As such, the model can be applied to any industry or career, or even comparison of different career paths. Each job description includes the basic responsibilities and requirements, including the necessary education and experience to apply for the position. The model allows easy tracing of both upward paths (future training needed) and backwards regression – what are the multiple paths and/or prerequisites to get to a particular position? NOW you have a plan for education and experience as well as multiple ways to obtain them.

The BP approach doesn’t answer the “time management” issue directly, but it does ensure that anyone will know exactly what is required to reach a particular position in the organization. If it will take five years, you better plan on five years! It will help a person to identify “critical” education and experience and avoid “convenient” but non-essential training. The key utility is the model’s ability to identify and specify the “shortest route” from any position to any other position. It may be part of an assumed trajectory already, or it might indicate that a complete “restart” is necessary. But the user cannot say that they didn’t know what would be involved, or claim prejudice in terms of basic position requirements.

Overall, it was the clearest, most complete “map” of career pathways and intersections that I have ever seen. While the details are proprietary to BP, this outline of the model can be used by anyone to develop a similar matrix within a company, or even for their own educational forecasting.
 

 
Time Constraints
Steven Cooke, Member
@KOEHL Maryse: I agree that is the reason for a "time management process! We will never have enough time to "do it all", and even the time we spend on important tasks has effective limitations.
Good planned study should always include very particular timed breaks and time for reflection as well as the sequence of materials.
 

 
 

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