34th US President, Dwight D. Eisenhower lived one of the most productive lives you can imagine. During his presidency, he launched programs that directly led to the launch of the internet (DARPA), the exploration of space (NASA), the development of the Interstate Highway System, ended the Korean War, welcomed Hawaii and Alaska into the union, and managed to keep the Cold War between the US and Russia cold. These were just some of his achievements during his two terms serving as a president.
Eisenhower understood the fundamental difference between the Urgent and the Important. In a 1954 speech, he quoted the president of Northwestern University, Dr. J. Roscoe Miller, who said: “I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”
This short story reveals how Eisenhower used to organize his workloads and priorities. He used something called The Urgent-Important Matrix, which later become known as The Eisenhower Matrix or The Eisenhower Box.
Using the Eisenhower Matrix helps you combat the mere urgency effect, eliminate time-wasters from your life, and create more mental space and clarity to progress on goals and tasks that matter.
Before I start with the matrix, let me get you acquainted with the distinction between the two categories on which the whole principle is based – urgency vs importance.
A) Urgent tasks are those that scream ‘Right Now!’ and require immediate action. Often, urgent tasks come with clear consequences for not completing them immediately.
They are unavoidable, but also put you into a reactive mode where you act mostly on impulse and nothing else.
Be Careful! Doing only the urgent tasks results in important tasks turning into urgent ones with little to no time to accomplish them. Then you either end up super stressed or don’t complete them in the way you wanted.
B) Important tasks, on the other hand, are those that contribute to long-term goals. They require planning and thoughtful action. Usually, they are things you know you need to do, but you don’t plan on doing them any time soon because they require lots of effort.
When you finally decide to tackle important tasks, you must take enough time to complete them in proactive, instead of reactive mode. When you’re in the proactive mode, you are calm, rational, and willing to accept new challenges and perform your best.
Once completed, they will lead to significant results, whether personal or professional and move you closer to your goals and dreams.
Take a piece of paper and divide it into four quadrants. The horizontal X-axis on the graph below represents urgency, while the vertical Y-axis represents importance. You should end up with four distinct areas:
Using this matrix, you can easily prioritize your most pressing tasks, and delegate and schedule the rest.
Urgent and important tasks demand your immediate attention and action. Usually, these are either tasks or activities you got from an external source or tasks you put off until faced with a deadline. Either way, you need to do them right now.
Not urgent, but important tasks are the activities that help you achieve long-term goals and complete important work. They may not have a deadline, so it’s easier to postpone them in favor of more urgent tasks. However, these tasks most often have a much greater impact on completing your meaningful goals and bringing you closer to more opportunities and growth. The deep work usually occurs in the second quadrant.
Schedule a time to do them, and then focus only on the task at hand.
Urgent but not important tasks are often based on expectations set by others and do not move you closer to your long-term goals – they are best described as busywork. You need to ask yourself whether you need to do these tasks yourself or if someone else can do it for you.
Ask yourself who possesses the knowledge to perform those tasks, and then delegate accordingly as many tasks as possible.
Separate work that is useful and will truly add value from the one that tricks you into feeling important by keeping you busy. Not urgent and not important tasks are time-wasting activities that are nothing more than distraction and productivity killers – ruthlessly cut them out.
Avoid them in the future by saying No to all the tasks that are not urgent and don’t align with your personal and professional goals. However, some tasks may be activities that other people want you to do, even though they don’t contribute to your own desired outcomes. Again, say No and explain why you cannot do it.
If people see that you’re focused on important work and clear about your objectives and boundaries, they will often avoid asking you to do something that is not important.
Assign different colors to your quadrants to quickly help you understand what is urgent and what is important. By allocating colors, you can get a quick glance at what needs to be done next. It can also help you to prioritize tasks to make better decisions.
For example, green color can be assigned to the Do quadrant to indicate the urgency and importance of the task.
The purpose of using the Eisenhower Matrix is to increase your productivity, not to over-complicate things. Therefore, adding too many tasks to each quadrant is detrimental to success. To optimize it, limit the number of tasks per quadrant to 3, max 4. That way you won’t be overwhelmed by what you need to do.
To avoid overlapping responsibilities, create separate matrices for personal and professional tasks. This will steer you clear for what lies ahead and will greatly influence how you manage your time.
In order to increase your productivity even more, assign a time limit to each task. I like to use the Pomodoro technique.
The key to mastering the Eisenhower Matrix is to never lose sight of the formula:
Distinguishing the important from the urgent is of the utmost importance. This way, the activities that truly matter in work and life are never out of sight or rushed to mediocre completion.
P.S.: This post is a part of a bigger one called The Best Productivity Systems in The World.
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