Dwight D. Eisenhower, the five-star general and the 34th President of the United States was heralded for his ability to lead and make decisions in times of conflict and duress. He prioritized people and resources above everything else. Even in the darkest hours and most pivotal moments of World War II, Eisenhower was intensely ambitious and steadfastly positive.
And like many of our noteworthy luminaries, there remains a certain, almost apocryphal mystique behind how the legendary leader earned his own power-packed productivity tool. According to legend, the matrix below was attributed to Eisenhower who said, “What is important is seldom urgent, and what is urgent is seldom important.” Despite its questionable veracity, there’s not much difficulty in debating Eisenhower’s effectiveness in time management. It’s why the Eisenhower Matrix system exists today. His ability to manage his time and tasks was essentially a decision matrix—a framework for deciding what was important and what wasn’t.
Most recently, the system has been popularized by Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.
Source: Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People
Time management solutions are a helpful antidote to days filled with increasingly blurred deadlines, incessant noise, and excessive disruptions. Today, one of the biggest business challenges (and personal challenges, too), is how we can decide what is urgent and what’s not. Once we clear that hurdle, procrastination melts away, and things start getting done.
Think of a task you need to do today. How do you decide when you’ll get it done, given all the competition from other items on your to-do list? Use the Eisenhower Matrix to help you figure it out Where you decide your task falls within a specific quadrant dictates where, when, and how long you should take to do that task. Take a look:
Quadrant 1 — “Do it immediately”
Type: Urgent and important
These are the tasks and to-dos that need immediate attention. They are very important deadlines with the highest level of urgency.
Quadrant 2 — “Decide when you’ll do it”
Type: Important, but not urgent
This is considered a strategic section of the matrix, perfect for long-term development. Items that belong here are important, but they do not require your immediate attention.
Quadrant 3 — “Delegate to somebody else”
Type: Urgent, but not important
Phone calls, emails, and last-minute meeting requests belong in this quadrant. These types of tasks usually don’t warrant your attention because they don’t produce measurable output. The goal with these tasks is to make an attempt at eliminating and reducing the things that don’t help you do work.
For some, delegation can be an attractive option by offloading work to others so that the calls, emails, and requests can still be handled, freeing you to focus on things that matter in other quadrants.
Quadrant 4 — “Do it later”
Type: Not important, not urgent
Activities that belong in this quadrant are the time-sucking things that don’t contribute any value whatsoever. Simply put, this is the stuff of procrastination—the time-wasters that prevent us from accomplishing the more urgent and important tasks in the first two quadrants. It’s best for you to see them in this quadrant so you can work hard at completely eliminating them from your work day.
Choose your own color
To add a new dimension to your matrix, assign each of the sections in your system a color. The perfect color codes to implement can be modeled after those of firefighters. Assign each color priority level.
Red = urgent: Do this task immediately
Yellow = important, but it’s not super urgent: Decide when you need to do it.
Green = urgent, not important: Delegate this task!
Grey = not urgent, not important: Dump this task!
If you’re tackling the matrix for your professional goals, you may start to see that many of your to-dos are in quadrants one and three. The biggest payoff comes from actions in the second quadrant.These are the goal-setting and evaluation of business objectives that impact the long-term success of a business, yet, they are rarely classified as urgent.
Be a steward of your most precious resource: time.
- Make a list of the things you need to do.
- Label each of the things with a number, one through four (matching the matrix).
Now that you have written your list, you have an accurate representation of the things you need to work on, and what is most pressing.
Urgent vs. important?
It’s a huge challenge to understand the things that take you off your projected course compared to the things that will move the needle. But if we don’t get a handle on this fundamental time management issue, it could leave a lot of us wishing we could get things done instead of actually getting them done.
Instead of focusing on solely the ‘urgent and important’ quadrant of the Eisenhower Matrix, ask yourself these questions to help set the future for your long-term decision-making strategies.
- When will you deal with the tasks that are important, but not urgent?
- When will you take the time to deal with the important tasks before they suddenly become urgent?
If an emergency comes up, your priorities will change. For example, if you own a small business, and a customer calls and asks to speak to a manager about missed expectations, that suddenly takes precedence over other action items in your matrix.
Things to be done
President Eisenhower was able to delegate tasks to his staff. If you don’t have a staff, 25 percent of this matrix is useless. To solve the problem of being a staff of one, implement a to-do list. Assign a number on each task from the list to the quadrant to which it belongs in the matrix.
If you need another way to think about what needs to be done and when, look no further than multi-billionaire, Warren Buffett. He suggests making a list of all the things you have to get done each day. Start with the very top of your list and scratch it off when you have completed it.
To do more — design your time
Here are a few more tips on using the matrix to your advantage so you can accomplish more.
- To-do lists help ease your mind. How you employ a list is up to you, but make sure you question (much like Mr. Buffett), what you need to accomplish first. Priority is key.
- The point of each quadrant is to add many actions and tasks, but it will get over-complicated if you have more than seven or eight action items. The goal is accomplishment.
- Try creating a separate list and matrix for your professional and personal life.
- Only you get to define the priority level of the action items on your list. Hit the to-do list every morning, and you’ll start to experience how it feels to accomplish your tasks at the end of the day or week.