Dwight Eisenhower famously quoted J. Roscoe Miller, president of Northwestern University, in a speech: “I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important and the important are never urgent.”
The 34th president of the United States, who served as a general in the Army, launched space programs and was responsible for the development of the interstate highway, understood the importance of effective time management. In fact, he devised an entire system to ease workload pressure: The Eisenhower Matrix.
The Four Quadrants
In the face of rising workplace burnout — something experienced by almost 23% of employees — Eisenhower’s method offers a simple framework to help people balance the amount on their plate.
Also referred to as the Urgent-Important Matrix, this visual method of time management splits tasks into four quadrants to help prioritize the order of completion. Boxes are labelled one to four, each with a specific action point: do, decide, delegate or delete.
- Do: urgent and important (tasks to complete immediately).
- Decide: important but not urgent (tasks that you should prioritize and schedule to prevent a last-minute rush).
- Delegate: urgent but not important (urgent but menial tasks, like meetings that get in the way of the important ones).
- Delete: not urgent and not important (tasks that only serve to waste time and that you can remove from your to-do list).
Urgent Versus Important
Urgent tasks are time-sensitive responsibilities. They are the jobs that require prompt attention and include phone calls, meetings and immediate crises fall under this category. Important issues, on the other hand, are paramount to growth and are often evolutionary by nature. They contribute to the bigger picture, and they’re often set aside when urgent tasks muscle their way in.
The problem, as you might imagine, is that when important tasks take a back seat, business can remain stagnant and unmoving or progress at a slower pace than you want. This is particularly true of those important but not urgent tasks in the second quadrant, which we often overlook while tasks in the first and third and, often, even fourth quadrants take precedence.
Distinguishing between “urgent” and “important” helps you compartmentalize your thoughts and make decisions. In this way, the Eisenhower Matrix provides guilt-free permission to focus your attention on tasks that matter — the ones in the first two quadrants — and to eliminate anything that doesn’t positively contribute to your role.
Deciding What’s Important
It’s natural to draw a blank when trying to determine where everything should fit inside the Eisenhower Matrix, particularly when it comes to deciding what constitutes “important.” It’s important to remember that urgent tasks are not important simply because they are pressing.
The best place to start is by making a to-do list, which will help you visualize your tasks. After all, it’s easier to understand the the scale of your commitments when they’re on paper rather than buzzing around like flies inside your head.
The next step is to look through the list and ask yourself two questions: Would the repercussions be significant if this task weren’t completed, and can you delegate this task? Sometimes, the urgent tasks blindside us to the point that we believe they’re more important than they are. If you can eliminate a task from your to-do list without affecting the business, then do so. Similarly, if it is possible to hand the task off to a colleague, then it might not be as important to you, personally.
Once you have a good idea of what constitutes an important task, you can start dividing the tasks based on urgency. Hopefully, this step should be clearer than the previous one. If it needs to be completed today or in the next couple of days, then it’s urgent. If you can put it off until later, then it’s probably not so urgent.
Once you have set up your matrix, your next job is to get moving! You’ll probably find that your priorities switch, which may seem a little daunting at first. But the goal of the Eisenhower Matrix is to bolster proactivity, and as time goes on, it should become easier and clearer.