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 and framework are not new, they are just as relevant today as we plan our work (and personal) tasks. In fact taking a thoughtful approach to work using the Eisenhower Matrix may be even more important today with the rapidly increasing pace of business and information.

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 we need to consider when we assess the priority of any task: it’s importance and it’s 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 that there are some key activity buckets that you can group your tasks into:

  1. Urgent and Important – Necessity
  2. Urgent and Not Important – Deception
  3. Not Urgent and Not Important – Waste
  4. Not Urgent and Important – Leadership

Necessity – Urgent and Important

These tasks are critical and need to be addressed 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.

Because these tasks should be at the top of your to-do list it is extremely critical that you assess them carefully before they make it into this bucket. Consider questions like:

  • Is this system or process 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 and taking our time in preparation?
  • 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 because they appear to have urgency but they don’t actually have value or aren’t truly important to the outcomes that you and the organization are working toward. They are deceptive because they often come to you as a “fire to put out” but under close examination 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 assessment of your Necessity tasks because they don’t meet the “important” criteria when you start asking the important questions I have suggested.

Waste – Not Urgent and Not Important

While we all come to work planning to do great work and deliver value to the organization the reality is that we often get caught up in “waste” activities, particularly when we have cleared our “necessity” bucket and are procrastinating our “leadership” tasks. The science actually shows that everyone is guilty of procrastination sometimes and up to 20% of people are actually 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 can quickly fill the time in your day and can even sometimes find themselves pre-empting your “necessity” tasks if you don’t manage them carefully. 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 of the other task buckets are items that you should clearly “do” or “not do”, but this one is the one that will help reduce the flow of items into the “necessity” bucket by addressing the root causes that are creating the crises. You will never eliminate the “necessity” tasks you need to address, but if you are finding that every day starts with 45 tasks that are “on fire” then you need to block time in your day to start looking at the leadership tasks that can help address the root causes.

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).

Using the Matrix to Work Smarter

Once you understand the quadrants of the matrix and can see how your day-to-day tasks fit into them it is important for you to make categorizing your tasks the first step in dealing with them. There are a thousand tools that can help you manage your list of tasks ranging from a pen and paper to computer or smartphone apps, but ultimately how you manage that task list 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:

  1. Necessity
  2. Leadership
  3. Deception
  4. Waste

Note that I have blocked out the Deception and Waste buckets because they should not make it to your task list. The second you identify a task or activity as being deception or waste it should be killed and removed from taking up your time or mental space.

Now with your task list prioritized you need to make conscious choices about which leadership tasks you are going to force into every day’s activities… because you need to attack some of those tasks every day to build the habit. Even if your necessity list extends to three days of activities you need to force in some of the leadership tasks into every day… even if it is for 20 minutes… even if it means you drink one less coffee.

If you leverage the power of the Eisenhower Matrix to understand your tasks and build your daily work priorities around those categories you will quickly find that your “necessity” list is steadily shrinking and you can feel more relaxed and able to improve the quality of your work and leadership in the organization.

The value you deliver in your job (and to yourself in your personal life) is directly related to your ability to do the right tasks at the right time with the appropriate quality and outcomes. Try leveraging the Eisenhower Matrix to help you improve that ability as a part of your daily planning.

About 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.

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