Long before management consultants made the humble 2×2 matrix their stock-in-trade, President Dwight D. Eisenhower used the format to create one of the most powerful productivity tools of the 20th century: take your itemized to-do list, and dichotomize all the items on their importance and urgency. Then, classify these on a 2×2 with urgency on the x-axis and importance on the y-axis. The items in each bucket warrant a different kind of response.
- The urgent-and-important tasks in the ‘Do’ quadrant need doing now (e.g., call the fire brigade if your house is burning down.)
- The urgent-but-not-important tasks in the ‘Delegate or Automate’ quadrant are best delegated where possible (think booking a hotel or clearing low-priority emails.)
- The important-but-not-urgent tasks (strategic planning, training) in the ‘Schedule’ quadrant should take up most of your time. Eisenhower noted that truly vital yet immediate tasks are few and far between: “I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.” That means committing to doing the tasks you schedule. Being effective can’t happen if you keep kicking the can down the road.
- The neither-important nor-urgent tasks in the ‘Eliminate’ quadrant are usually time-wasting activities and must be eliminated forthwith. They don’t move you towards achieving your goals.
De-prioritize Stuff You Shouldn’t Be Doing in the First Place
The Eisenhower Priority Matrix isn’t entirely ground-breaking. Still, it can help you recognize you can deliver yourself by knowing it’s okay not to complete them all, so long as you get the most vital ones done. The challenge lies in being able to determine what’s essential and what isn’t, as expounded tediously in Steven Covey’s First Things First (1994):
Urgent matters are those that require immediate action. These are the visible issues that pop up and demand your attention now. Often, urgent matters come with clear consequences for not completing these tasks. Urgent tasks are unavoidadable, but spending too much time putting out fires can produce a great deal of stress and could result in burnout.
Important matters, on the other hand, are those that contribute to long-term goals and life values. These items require planning and thoughtful action. When you focus on important matters you manage your time, energy, and attention rather than mindlessly expending these resources. What is important is subjective and depends on your own values and personal goals. No one else can define what is important for you.
The key to productivity is to be very selective in what you pick and execute your most important priorities. Be ready to delegate and be quick and not-to-perfection on as many things as possible. You really don’t need to give 110% on everything.
Idea for Impact: Use the Eisenhower Priority Matrix to Triage Your To-Do List
The Eisenhower method can be an indispensable weapon in your efficiency arsenal. Your life will never be the same when you internalize clarity of habits. Once you’ve been using the matrix for a while, you can realize a pattern of your own behavior. With some discipline, you can change your behaviors to ensure you’re spending more time on the ‘Schedule’ and ‘Do’ quadrants, improving your ability to plan your work.
Try taking a few minutes each day and analyze your task list. Are there things on there that you can delegate or eliminate? Are you genuinely focusing on the right tasks? It’s incredible how much more productive you can be with a bit of planning and forethought.