President Dwight D. Eisenhower was a General in the US Army, then Allied Forces Supreme Commander during World War II, and later the 34th President of the United States (1953–61, serving two consecutive terms), is the namesake of the priority matrix that can help you organize your life and keep the balance of your to-do list.
In 1954, Eisenhower gave a speech at the Second Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Evanston, Illinois, when he expressed there is a dilemma between things that are urgent, and those that are important. To illustrate his point, he quoted a former college president (and it is unknown who that person is), who said “I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.” Though the idea is now his, it became known as the Eisenhower matrix, that is to be said to help him solve and manage difficult times in his military and presidential career.
Stephen Covey, the author of the organization book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” put together these insights and created a simple tool to prioritize tasks that is now known as the Eisenhower Matrix (or the Urgent/Important Principle). Let’s dissect all four fields and see why this simple exercise helps organize various things!
Plans are useless, but planning is everything. There is a very great distinction because when you are planning for an emergency, you must start with this one thing: the very definition of “emergency” is that it is unexpected, therefore it is not going to happen the way you are planning.Dwight D. Eisenhower
URGENCY VERSUS IMPORTANCE
This distinction is crucial, but I don’t think we’re aware of in our day-to-day life. It’s difficult to do so when work goes a million miles an hour, we also need to plan out free time, we want to squeeze everything in what is left after work and mundane routines (and I base this statement on my own experiences, but also on what my friends say and what I hear from the participants of my workshops). This is how Covey explains that difference:
# “Urgent matters are those that require immediate attention. It’s ‘NOW!’ Urgent things act on us now. A ringing phone is urgent. Most people can’t stand the thought of just allowing the phone ring. (…) But so often they are unimportant!”
# “Important matters, on the other hand, has to do with the results. If something is important, it contributes to your mission, your values, your high priority goals.”
Mostly, we tend to prioritize tasks with deadlines, tasks that we like to do, tasks that have some fun in them – over tasks that bring us forward. There is a way to reverse it and it’s to assign urgency and priority to each task, and place them in one of the quadrants (as below). Be honest with yourself about what you want to achieve, and be assertive in saying “no” when you need to.
Understanding this difference is what divides your times between those you will do, delegate, or drop.
How to use this matrix? Assuming you thave a task list you want to prioritize, and you have goals and values you want to achieve – look at each task and assign one of the four “urgencies” and “importancies”. This will place your tasks in one of the four quadrants of the matrix. Now, see where they landed. Clockwise, from left to right:
IMPORTANT + URGENT = JUST DO IT!
Those are the tasks you absolutely should do now, those are the tasks that have the highest priority. It doesn’t matter if they required days or minutes, they will bring you closer to your goals, or they will satisfy your values. They could be work-related, or personal.
IMPORTANT + NOT URGENT = SCHEDULE
Clearly, those tasks are still important to you, but they don’t have the highest priority and the world won’t crumble if you do them later. Schedule them, and make sure to book enough time, but don’t abandon them because they are still important in your development.
NOT IMPORTANT + URGENT = DELEGATE
Things that you need to do, but are not important to you. If they are not important to you, then why should you do them? Delegate them (but make sure you choose the right person for the right task), as they are still important and you can’t abandon them, but don’t focus your attention and energy on them, don’t waste your time.
NOT IMPORTANT + NOT URGENT = ELIMINATE
That’s easy: drop those immediately. Those are the tasks that eat up your time and don’t bring anything in exchange. Not only do they not offer any development for your goals, but they also take the time you could be devoting to the first category!
You can download the above as an empty handout and use it freely!
WHAT’S IN IT FOR YOU
The ability to focus on tasks that move us closer to our goals is a godsend in our times. It can put you back on the path of your values, help you figure out what matters in your life, and how to quickly decided which tasks deserve your attention. Work-wise, it can increase productivity and enable better cooperation between teams that know their tasks and visions. In your private life, it can help you decided how to spend your time – the only gift we will never get back. Take the matrix and start changing your days!
REFERENCES AND FURTHER READING
+ Covey, R. S. (2004) The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. Free Press.
+ Krogerus, M., Tschäppeler, R. (2017) The Decision Book: Fifty models for strategic thinking. Profile Books.
+ Oakes S., Griffin, M. (2016) The Level Mindset: 40 activities for transforming student commitment, motivation and productivity. Crown House Publishing.
+ Blaschka, A. “Tim Ferriss Is The King Of This In-Demand Soft Skill: Here Are Seven Ways To Master It.” Forbes.com. https://www.forbes.com/sites/amyblaschka/2019/03/14/tim-ferriss-is-the-king-of-this-in-demand-soft-skill-here-are-seven-ways-you-can-master-it/#5a7ad4712934. Accessed 3 Jun, 2020.