The Eisenhower Matrix and Productivity
How busy are you?
For those of us dealing with ADHD or constantly battling an ever-growing to-do list, life can often seem overwhelmingly busy.
And sure you might be busy, but are you running-a-superpower, presidential life kind of busy?
Dwight Eisenhower, the 34th President of the United States, led an exceptionally productive life.
He could give any overachiever a run for their money. Not only did he dabble in a little hobby called “protecting the nation” as the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II. He also casually founded DARPA and NASA, because clearly, the man had a side gig as a rocket scientist.
And just for good measure, he moonlighted as the President of Columbia University because, you know, he had some free time between world-changing endeavors.
How did Eisenhower do it all?
Let’s start with this little sentence he was famously quoted as saying:
“I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”
You might be thinking, well that’s impossible — there might be tasks that are both important and urgent.
And that question brings us neatly to the Eisenhower matrix.
What is ‘important’ and what is ‘urgent’?
Before I get into defining the matrix, let’s get you acquainted with the distinction between the two categories on which the whole principle is founded.
What are ‘important’ tasks?
These are the tasks that linger in the back of your mind, things you recognize as necessary but may not have immediate plans to tackle. You understand their significance, as they contribute to important outcomes, whether in your personal or professional life, regardless of the time they take to complete.
An example could be getting into strength training, or writing that book you’ve always wanted to write.
These usually require a planned effort and they are typically long term.
So, what exactly are ‘urgent’ tasks?
Urgent tasks are the ones that holler “Right Now!” and insist on immediate action. Dealing with urgent matters thrusts you into a reactive state, where you respond impulsively without much room for planning. These tasks tend to monopolize your time.
Focusing solely on urgent matters can turn important tasks into urgent ones, leaving little time to handle them properly. This often leads to high-stress situations, forcing you into a fight-or-flight mode where you either succumb to stress or fail to accomplish tasks in the way you initially intended and desired.
So, to summarize
Important tasks are:
Usually not time sensitive
Usually long term
Can be scheduled to finish later
Require both effort and thought Can be more consequential, especially in the long term
Urgent tasks are:
Usually short term
Need to be completed right away
Usually require less thought more effort
Can be less consequential
Using the Eisenhower matrix, you can organize your activities as follows.
Urgent and important (tasks you will have to do immediately).
Important, but not urgent (tasks you will decide to do later).
Urgent, but not important (tasks you will delegate to someone else).
Neither urgent nor important (tasks that you will delete).
And thankfully, you can remember this matrix even without looking at it since all the words begin with the letter “D”.
Quadrant 1: Urgent, Important (DO)
Tasks in Quadrant 1 are like those pesky warning pop-ups that keep hijacking your computer screen, insisting you deal with them before you can access anything else.
These are the real-deal, time-critical tasks. Ignoring them is like inviting chaos and near-disaster to your doorstep.
Sure, in our hyper-alert world, everything can seem urgent, but these are the true nail-biters. Think: running out of cash and grinding your project to a screeching halt, dealing with an accidental PR blunder that’s spreading like wildfire, or a major operational meltdown.
While these activities demand your immediate attention, you should aim to escape this quadrant and venture into the more tranquil, well-planned territory as soon as possible. It’s time to graduate to the big leagues!
Quadrant 2: Not urgent, important (PLAN)
These are the heavyweight tasks I was mentioning earlier. They’re vital, but you don’t jump into them headfirst. You schedule them for a more convenient time, based on your availability and, let’s be honest, your motivation.
I get it, everyone’s drawn to that top-left quadrant — the urgent and important stuff. Then, they dart over to the third — the not important, but oh-so-urgent zone. But Quadrant 2, my friends, that’s where the magic happens.
Think of it as your VIP section for long-term goals.
Picture this: nurturing meaningful relationships with your team, juniors, clients, and potential partners; hunting down new skills to add to your toolbox, or sleuthing out and jotting down risks in your upcoming project.
Quadrant 3: Urgent, not important (DELEGATE)
In Quadrant 3, tasks are urgent but not necessarily important in the sense that they don’t require your personal attention. Delegating these tasks to others isn’t a sign of neglect; it’s an opportunity for team members to grow and showcase their skills, creating a win-win situation.
For instance, imagine you’re deeply involved in a critical project function, and you learn about server downtime, which is both urgent and important. However, it doesn’t demand your unique expertise. Following the Eisenhower method, you can delegate this task, entrusting someone else to be your project’s hero.
Alternatively, in this Information Age, technology can be your reliable teammate, handling a wide range of tasks. While these urgent and seemingly important tasks may cause initial worry, entrusting others or leveraging technology can yield excellent results.
Quadrant 4: Not Important, Not Urgent (DELETE)
Tasks in Quadrant 4 are the ones you can simply skip. Think of it as a Mari-Kondo-style decluttering for your work life, where you discard tasks that don’t contribute to your productivity.
Author Steven Covey notes that some people mistakenly invest too much time in Quadrant 4, believing they’re in Quadrant 1 because they’re busy with non-essential activities that don’t advance their goals or projects.
These tasks often involve everyday distractions like incoming calls, emails, and social media. While they can throw you off track, they can also serve as downtime or an escape for some (especially for hardcore workaholics).
Completing these tangible tasks can provide a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment, similar to checking items off a to-do list. The Eisenhower method doesn’t advocate eliminating these tasks entirely. Even Eisenhower himself enjoyed leisure activities like bridge and golf…
These intermissions can be necessary to recharge your mental and physical energy, potentially allowing you to reclassify them into Quadrant 2 if they serve as productive breaks.
So there it is...
Making the distinction between urgent and important is the key to mastering this technique.
It means that the activities that truly matter in work and life are never out of sight or rushed to a mediocre completion.
My main Sunday activity is putting on the Crown and writing my task matrix. It’s become a weekly ritual that not only helps me prioritize my week, but also adds a touch of futuristic flair to my day. It’s a fun and truly efficient way to set the tone for the week ahead, ensuring that important matters get the royal treatment they deserve.