Dwight Eisenhower was the 34th President of the United States, serving as president from 1953 to 1961. He faced challenges such as the Korean War, the start of the space race, the Lebanon crisis, and a growing conflict with the Soviet Union. One of his famous quotes was:
What is important is seldom urgent, and what is urgent is seldom important.
It was from that quote that the concept of the Eisenhower Matrix was born, a concept which has been talked about in many famous books including First Things First and The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven Covey where it became a foundational component of his time management approach. While the concept isn’t new, it is just as relevant today as we plan our work. In fact working smarter using the Eisenhower Matrix is even more important today than ever in history.
Working Smarter with The Eisenhower Matrix
I’ve talked about the Eisenhower Matrix in the past in my post on Breaking the Fire Fighting Cycle, but I wanted to dive a little deeper into how it can be used in your day-to-day planning. Let’s start with the foundation of the Eisenhower Matrix which is housed within his famous quote. There are two factors you need to consider when we assess the priority of any task: importance and urgency. The Eisenhower Matrix plots those two factors on axes (like any good consulting framework) to form a standard two by two grid.
When you look at the matrix you can see there are some key activity buckets to group your tasks into:
- Urgent and Important – Necessity
- Urgent and Not Important – Deception
- Not Urgent and Not Important – Waste
- Not Urgent and Important – Leadership
Necessity – Urgent and Important
These tasks are critical because they carry both urgency and importance to you and your organization. They include real crises (critical system failures), deadline driven activities (project deliverables), pressing problems (client issues), last minute preparations (a short-notice key account presentation), or other “true” emergencies in the business.
These tasks should be at the top of your to-do list but it is critical that you assess them carefully before they make it into this bucket. Consider questions like:
- Is this system failure really critical to the business or could we work around it in the short term?
- Is this task on the critical path or is there actually some ability to extend the timelines?
- Is the client request or issue actually critical or is there an opportunity to push back or offer alternatives?
- Does this meeting need to happen now or would we be better served by requesting an extension?
- Is this really an emergency that affects the organization or is it simply an “executive request”?
Deception – Urgent and Not Important
These tasks are tricky. They appear to have urgency but they aren’t truly important to the outcomes you are working toward. They are deceptive because they often come to you as a “fire to put out”. Under close examination they are little more than a mirage of urgency. These tasks include meeting other people’s personal priorities and expectations (when they don’t align to the desired outcomes or organizational priorities), frequent interruptions (questions, emails, phone calls, etc) which don’t align to priorities, and non-emergency crises.
You can usually recognize these tasks during your Necessity assessment because they don’t meet the “important” criteria when you start asking the critical questions.
Waste – Not Urgent and Not Important
We all come to work planning to deliver value to the organization, but we often get caught up in “waste” activities. This happens most often when we have cleared our “necessity” bucket and are procrastinating our “leadership” tasks. The science shows that everyone is guilty of procrastination sometimes. In fact, up to 20% of people are chronic procrastinators. You can usually figure out whether you are procrastinating if what you are working on is escapist in nature (your third coffee refill in 30 minutes), busywork (updating that Powerpoint template to fix the alignment that nobody noticed), reading junk mail or emails that have no relevance to your important work, taking social phone calls or social hallway conversations that are extending beyond a “normal” mental break time line.
These waste activities quickly fill the time in your day and sometimes find themselves pre-empting your “necessity” tasks. In general, you need to be vigilant when you find yourself working waste tasks. You need to stop and kill them as soon as you find them. They will suck the productivity out of your day.
Leadership – Not Urgent and Important
This is the bucket where the magic of “working smarter” happens. All other task buckets are items that you should “do” or “not do”. Leadership is the one that will help reduce the flow of items into the “necessity” bucket by dealing with the root causes of the crises. You will never completely eliminate the “necessity” tasks you need to address. If your day starts with 45 necessity tasks you need to block time for the leadership tasks that address the root cause.
Leadership tasks include advanced preparation and planning (doing pre-work for that key account meeting that is coming up in two weeks), values clarification (aligning expectations and roles across your team towards the priority outcomes), empowerment (delegating key tasks and decisions to your team), relationship building (building trust with key stakeholders or partners), and true recreation (taking time for yourself to unwind).
Working Smarter Using the Matrix
It is important to actively categorize all of your tasks into the quadrants of the matrix. There are many tools that can help you manage your list of tasks ranging from a pen and paper to computer or smartphone apps. Ultimately, it is how you manage the tool is what gives it the magic.
Every task on your list should be categorized into one of the buckets and they should be prioritized based on those buckets:
The Deception and Waste buckets are blocked because they should not make it to your task list. When you identify a task as being deception or waste it should be killed immediately. You should never allow it to take up time or mental space.
With your task list prioritized you need to make choices about which leadership tasks you are going to force into your day. You need to attack some of those important tasks every day to build the habit. Even if your necessity list extends to three days of activities you need to force leadership tasks into every day. Even if it is for 20 minutes. Even if it means you drink one less coffee.
By leveraging the power of the Eisenhower Matrix to understand your tasks and build your priorities you will quickly find that your “necessity” list is steadily shrinking. You will feel more relaxed and able to improve your leadership in the organization.
The value you deliver in work and life is directly related to doing the right tasks at the right time. Add in the appropriate quality and outcome measures and you are finally working smarter!
Try leveraging the Eisenhower Matrix to help you improve that ability as a part of your daily planning.
Tim Empringham, MBA
Tim Empringham is a passionate advocate for Innovation in organizations of all sizes as a mechanism to drive growth, create uncontested market space, create new customer value, and drive efficiency into the internal organization. His focus is on disruption of thinking and markets through integrative thinking, structured Innovation frameworks, and leadership development of Innovation and Change leaders within the organization.