Can’t take your eyes off that Twitter feed? Are you overwhelmed by your email? Do you feel like a guinea pig on a wheel, always running but making no real progress? Are you jealous of those highly effective people around you who manage to get things done, but aren’t stressed at all?
If you said yes, then you probably need to separate the urgent from the important in your life.
Or you may have ADD, in which case you’ve already stopped reading.
You too can learn the fine art of stress free productivity, and from an unexpected source, General and President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Now, you may ask “How can you possibly learn about prioritization from a dead dude?” and “Aren’t there more modern ideas that are far superior?” In fact, that dead dude is to this day hailed as an exceptional leader from whom we can learn many lessons, including the time management system to which he is attributed. And, as you learn more about prioritization and time management methods (GTD, Tyranny of the Urgent, POSEC), you find them all rooted in the fundamental principle of prioritizing combinations of urgency and importance.
Even the new masters started somewhere. So before you run, you need to learn how to walk.
The Difference between Urgent and Important
Urgent means that a task requires your immediate attention. These are the things that grab your attention immediately, typically putting you in a stressed, reactive state.
Important is something that is required to achieve a long-term goal, reach a milestone in a project, or follow your core values. These things typically put you in a concentrated, responsive state.
The distinction between these two are obvious. But in the frenzy of the day, bombarded with stimuli, we often become overwhelmed, reacting immediately and losing sight of the truly important. As generations immersed in new technology, we emphasize the importance of our devices, but those devices treat everything with equal urgency, pressuring us to live only in the present.
Applying this simple decision matrix to your everyday work and life will help you to become highly effective while reducing your overall stress.
The Eisenhower Decision Matrix
The Eisenhower decision matrix is comprised of four quadrants: Important/Urgent, Important/Not Urgent, Not Important/Urgent, Not Important/Not Urgent. Here is an example from Wikipedia:
Here we’ll go into each of the quadrants, detailing how the components of your work and personal life might fit.
Important and Urgent
Tasks in this quadrant are both urgent and important. These are tasks that you need to handle immediately, and contribute to your long-term goals, values, or mission. They can also include crises, problems, and deadlines.
Some examples include:
- Certain emails/texts (From your boss, your spouse, break/fix emergencies, etc.)
- Project deadline for company initiative
- Household chores
- Medical emergencies
Some of the items in this quadrant could potentially be moved to another quadrant with some appropriate planning. For example, when planned properly, a project should not require a rush to meet the deadline. The project timeline, as well as the time of each individual contributor, should be scheduled accordingly so the project is completed early, or on time, when possible.
Not Urgent but Important
Items in the Not Urgent/Important quadrant are those that don’t need immediate attention, but are still important. These typically revolve around achieving personal and professional goals.
Some examples include:
- Project tasks
- Professional training
- Personal and professional hobbies (20% time)
We should be spending most of our time on activities that fall in this quadrant, as they provide us with professional enrichment and personal happiness.
The challenges, of course, are being able to determine what is truly important to you, while also determining what is truly urgent.
If you haven’t done so, sit down and write out your life goals and core values. You should have already completed your professional goals for the year. Use these manifestos to remind yourself of what’s important. If what you’re doing doesn’t align with one of your goals or values, it’s probably not important.
A significant point here is that these tasks are IMPORTANT, and you must make time for them. Sometime won’t come. You have to work on these items intentionally, making time for them no matter what.
Urgent but Not Important
These are the tasks we often spend most of our time doing, thinking we’re “getting things done”. If you feel you’re too busy to catch an important meeting (All Hands, Initiative Q&A, etc.), and don’t feel as though you’re making long-term progress, you’re probably spending most of your time on these tasks. They are often interruptions from others and don’t contribute to our goals or core values, and thus not truly important.
Some examples include:
- Most email
- Most phone calls
- Most text messages
- Most walkups to your desk
Work that falls in this quadrant is probably what you’re doing most in the day. It’s what makes you feel busy, checking tasks off your to-do list that feel important at the time, but don’t align with our projects, goals, or values.
As previously stated, deciding what is urgent is difficult, as we’re bombarded with stimuli from the present, all vying for our immediate attention. This can only be overcome with discipline. Mute your phone, turn off the Facebook and Twitter notifications, and close your email. If you get a lot of people walking up to your desk, put on headphones. If they violate the sacred headphone rule, ask them to kindly come back later (tell them when) or send you an email which you’ll respond to later. Do whatever it takes to eliminate the distractions.
Not Urgent and Not Important
These are mostly distractions. It’s Facebook and Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat. These items aren’t important, and they certainly aren’t urgent.
Some examples include:
- Checking Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.
- Mindlessly browsing the series of tubes
- Watching TV
- Nerf wars
- Some text messages from friends and family
While you probably recognize these as time wasters, you shouldn’t strive to completely eliminate them from your life. The activities in this quadrant hold a purpose of their own: they allow us to decompress. But you should strive to reduce the time spent on these to an acceptable level, one that allows you to use the time efficiently and effectively.
Now that you understand the Eisenhower Decision Matrix, you need to put it into practice. If you don’t have clear life goals or core values, take a few hours (over a few weekend days) to write them down.
Challenge yourself this week to start applying this prioritization matrix to as many aspects of your life as possible. When faced with a decision, stop and ask yourself, “Is this important?” and “Is this urgent?” By appropriately prioritizing your daily and weekly tasks, you’ll find, over time, you’re less stressed, less frantic, and you feel more accomplished.
Tools for Success
The beauty of this method of prioritization is that it’s simple. You can quickly and easily re-align yourself throughout the day, as necessary.
Do you have a system for yourself to regularly identify what your priorities are? Here are some tools to help you start:
EISENHOWER – An iPhone app specifically geared around the Eisenhower Decision Matrix.
Clear – Another iPhone app, also available for Mac, but also allows for multiple to-do type lists. If you don’t like to group all of your personal and work tasks into one quadrant list, you can have as many “Urgent and Important” lists as you can handle.
My Effectiveness Habits To-do Tasks GTD – An Android app that embodies the Getting Things Done (GTD) principles.
If you want to read more about time management and prioritization, here are a few good places to start:
I was inspired to write this after several discussions with Nathan Cunningham about how to motivate people to commit their time to important goals. Those discussions quickly evolved into helping people to stop constantly put out fires (the urgent), and emphasize and prioritize the less-obviously important work.
I was personally inspired to begin applying the Eisenhower Decision Matrix after reading this.