If you’re not familiar with the Eisenhower Matrix, it’s a method that helps people determine how to prioritise their tasks. But why Eisenhower?

Dwight D. Eisenhower was the 34th president of the United States during WWII and he was a very productive person. This was a man that accomplished much during his time as president. He did everything from setting up NASA to building the Interstate Highway System, and so much more.

Eisenhower was able to get so much done because he was able to prioritise problems. Back in 1954, Eisenhower gave a speech where he made this statement, “I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”

Stephen Covey, in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, created a tool to prioritise tasks. That tool is called the Eisenhower Matrix, but is also called the Time Management Matrix, the Eisenhower Box, the Eisenhower Method, and the Urgent-Important Matrix). The matrix was created to help you learn how to prioritise so you can avoid the “mere-urgency” effect, get rid of things that take up your time, and create more brain power to get things done and reach your goals.

The Eisenhower Matrix is effective for people who find themselves running around dealing with problems all day, feel like their work doesn’t have any impact, have long-term goals but no time/energy to reach them, and have a hard time saying no. Does this describe you? If so, read on to learn more about the Eisenhower Matrix.

 

The Mere-Urgency Effect

How do you decide which task to give your attention to? If you’re like most people, you have a hard time with this. Researchers have studied this issue for decades. Some researchers ran experiments and found that our attention is drawn to time-sensitive tasks over tasks that are less urgent, even when the less urgent tasks offer great rewards. This is the Mere-Urgency Effect.

Unfortunately, this effect is found in people who describe themselves as “busy.” Researchers found these people are more likely to choose urgent tasks with lower rewards because these individuals are fixed on task duration. When they’re in a time crunch, they continue to prioritise tasks that keep them focused on the clock.

While it all sounds like doom and gloom, don’t worry! This is a behaviour that can be reversed. Further studies have shown that if you keep the long-term importance of non-urgent tasks in mind, it’s possible to overcome the draw of urgent distractions. So, you end up focusing on what really matters.

 

The Urgency-Importance Matrix

The urgency-importance matrix is a simple tool, yet it has some powerful ramifications in the long term. It helps you learn how to focus on what will make you more effective, not only more productive. All of your projects, from daily projects to large projects, will fall into one of these four categories:

  •     Urgent & important: tasks and projects to be completed immediately.
  •     Not urgent: tasks and projects to be scheduled on your calendar.
  •     Urgent & unimportant: tasks and projects to be delegated to someone else.
  •     Not urgent & unimportant: tasks and projects to be deleted.

While this tool is deceptively simple, it’s not always easy to determine the difference between urgent/non-urgent, important/not important. But there’s a solution for that, too!

 

The Definition of Urgent & Important

In his book, Steven Covey makes these distinctions between what’s urgent and what’s important:

 

Urgent

“Urgent matters are those that require immediate action. These are the visible issues that pop up and demand your attention NOW. Often, urgent matters come with clear consequences for not completing these tasks. Urgent tasks are unavoidable, but spending too much time putting out fires can produce a great deal of stress and could result in burnout.”

 

Important

“Important matters, on the other hand, are those that contribute to long-term goals and life values. These items require planning and thoughtful action. When you focus on important matters, you manage your time, energy, and attention rather than mindlessly expanding these resources. What is important is subjective and depends on your own values and personal goals. No one else can define what is important for you.”

These are very powerful distinctions between what’s urgent or what’s important. Let those concepts sink in for a moment.

Tasks that are important are the ones that need to be done now. It’s great to take care of things; however, over time, you lose sight of your own long-term goals that are important to you.

If you find yourself in this situation, you’re spending too much time on Quadrant 1 tasks. This can make you feel burned out, stressed, and feel as if your days are out of your control. In this way, you have no time or energy to devote to those tasks that are important. Instead, you may find yourself spending more time in Quadrant 4, doing small things to escape the grind.

Instead, when you focus on important tasks that help you achieve long-term goals, you are not driven by deadlines or urgent tasks. Covey says spending more time in Quadrant 2 is the best place to manage your personal time. This is where you don’t focus on problems but on opportunities and growth. Living out of this part of the matrix means you are proactive and make contributions toward meaningful goals.

Living in Quadrant 2 means you have a plan to complete projects and tasks and avoid potential problems. That means taking care of the small stuff along the way as you deal with the more important tasks.

 

Concluding Thoughts: How to Rebalance Quadrants

Where are you currently in the matrix? To find out, you can start tracking your time and tasks. This can be done through tools such as ToDoist, where it’s easy to monitor and mark tasks off as they’re completed. Once you have about a week’s worth of data, it’s time to sit down and organise your tasks into quadrants with these questions:

  •     Was this urgent for me?
  •     Was this important to me?

You decide the criteria for these decisions on your desired outcomes, not someone else’s. When your tasks are sorted, examine where you currently spend your time. Examine how things are going. If they’re not quite where you want them, evaluate and reorganise on a weekly or monthly basis.

Take the time to plan for the future by planning and anticipating to prevent future problems. Stay with this process and soon you’ll find you’ve stopped focusing on urgent issues and are working on important things, being more productive in the process.

 

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