Prioritize learning new skills using HBR’s 2*2 time-utility matrix

By on October 11, 2017

Change is the only constant. Everywhere we see, there is a rise in innovations and technological developments in almost all the industries. Any industry that does not adapt to these changes will find it difficult to sustain in the long term. In a way these innovations are being implemented to make companies more efficient and productive.

Due to this rising change in technology and automation, companies are getting used to rely on computers and robots to handle large amounts of work. As a result a sizable number of employees with medium-to-low skill knowledge working jobs are being replaced. Thus it is important for employees to develop their skills and expertise and help their company to continue to innovate. The more they learn, the more they can contribute to the success of a company. It is for this very reason that many companies encourage a culture of continuous learning the work place.

Everyday newer jobs are being created that are more complex and intellectually demanding than those they replaced. Ultimately employees who cannot learn these skills and are not able to perform according to newer standards may be eventually let go. That’s easier said than done. Learning new skills quickly is definitely useful. But there are so many things to learn at any given point of time that it is increasingly becoming difficult to determine which ones should be prioritized and which should be pushed to be learnt later on.

Today there are ‘n’ number of courses and certifications for employees to choose from. But the time for learning is less than 1% of their time, according to Bersin, a division of Deloitte.

A recent Harvard Business Review article on how to prioritize the skills to learn suggests applying a time-utility matrix to the subjects you’re interested in learning. It is largely similar to the cost-benefit analysis. In the time-utility matrix, “Time” is the time required for the employee to learn any skill. It is the opportunity cost of gaining competence in that field. And “Utility” stands for how likely is the employee going to actually use that desired skill and improve his performance.

The article states how manager’s today waste a large amount of their time on emailing, gathering data, running meetings, and making spreadsheets. Thus the utility in such cases for the managers to improve at these activities is considerably higher.

The time-utility matrix is a simple 2×2 matrix with four quadrants:
  • Learn it right away: high utility, low time-to-learn
  • Schedule a block of time for learning it, ideally in your calendar: high utility, high time-to-learn
  • Learn it as the chance arises — on a commute, lunch break, and so on: low utility, low time-to-learn
  • Decide whether you need to learn it: low utility, high time-to-learn


Here the HBR article explains the matrix by giving an example of learning new Excel skills and tricks. It can however be used by anyone to prioritize which skills they need to learn to improve their efficiency.

In your day to day life, which skills do you think would help you the most? It could be anything from shaping your personality to become more assertive in team meetings to organizing your daily activities in a more efficient manner. Whatever the skills are, you can assign approximate scores for time (to learn) and utility for each of these and note it down in their respective quadrants.

Skills that are marked in the bottom-right quadrant have a higher utility and provide quick wins. These wins are necessary to motivate you from time to time. Whereas the top right quadrant titled “Schedule a block of time for learning it” consists of highly important skills that are necessary for your career. However due to their nature and complexity, these skills require a considerable amount of time for completion.

The top left quadrant consists of skills that require more time to learn but have a lesser utility. That is, while you may spend a considerable amount of time and efforts on learning these skills, they will be of little use to improve your efficiency in your daily activities. Lastly, the bottom left quadrant hosts those skills which are not particularly useful but they can be learnt within a short amount of time.

In this age of continuous learning, the time-utility matrix is designed to help you grow and develop your skills according to the time you have at hand. The beauty of this matrix is that it can be used by individuals as well as larger number of teams in the organisation. How would you utilize it?

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