The 34th President of the United States was a man by the name of Dwight D. Eisenhower. Amongst many great accomplishments, he was a man of uncommon productivity habits. He was a five-star general in the United States Army who served as Supreme Commander of Allied Forces during World War Two.
When he became President of the United States, he initiated projects that led to the Interstate Highway System, the Internet (DARPA), NASA, and alternative energy resources (Atomic Energy).
He also held other distinguished posts such as President of Columbia University and First Supreme Commander of NATO. In each of these roles, he was undoubtedly inundated with an onslaught of demands, requests, and “urgent” matters.
Still, he found time to be with his family and pursue other hobbies like oil painting and golfing. He clearly had many things to do, and somehow was able to do them all. He boiled it down to one famous sentence:
“What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.”
He focused on his important work first and then worked through the unimportant work using a formula which was popularized by Stephen Covey in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. The formula is called the Eisenhower Box or the Eisenhower Matrix.
The matrix is a box broken into four quadrants and labeled:
1. Important and Urgent
2. Important but not Urgent
3. Urgent but not Important
4. Not important and not Urgent
To understand the Eisenhower Matrix better, let’s break down each section.
Quadrant One: Important and Urgent
When we think about our productivity and identify items that are important and urgent, we are looking at tasks which are part of our 20% work and have an urgency to them. These are tasks that support your important work and maybe fast track it to your end product.
Important, urgent work can come in all forms. It is important to deal with first because of its urgency. You will likely take strides toward the completion an end goal. In my job, when someone contacts me regarding a negotiation, it is often an urgent matter and could lead to a closure of a claim.
In a different industry, important work with a sense of urgency could be a business calling back which you pitched a product to and could lead to a sale. These are the people you get back to right away because it can contribute to your end goal.
These are also tasks with deadlines. While they only become urgent when we start working on them close to the deadline date, we could also remove the urgency by working on them sooner. It would fall under the next quadrant.
Quadrant Two: Important but Not Urgent
This is simply the 20% work which helps us move toward our end goals. Since there isn’t a deadline or an urgency to it, it’s work we prioritize in order to complete before the 80% work. We know this work contributes to our end product so we do it next in order to move everything forward.
According to Stephen Covey, this is where we should spend most of our time working out of this quadrant. This is the area where we are caught up and getting ahead. Because we don’t have fires to put out, they are items we are keeping up to date and crossing off our lists.
According to Brett McKay from The Art of Manliness blog, this is the quadrant of intentionality and proactivity. If we are spending most of our time here and focusing on the things which move us to our end product, then we will need to be intentional and proactive to do so.
Realistically, this isn’t the only work which comes up daily no matter how intentional and proactive we are about our productivity.
Quadrant Three: Urgent but Not Important
These are tasks which are not part of our 20% work. In many cases, they are interruptions to the important work we are trying to accomplish. It is out of this quadrant where many of us start to dig ourselves into a hole with our productivity. We spend much of our time working in this area given the quantity – not the importance.
It could be when a coworker asks for help on something. Or a manager sends you a note to follow-up on a ‘process detail.’ And a lot of times this is when the customer calls, emails, and repeats.
In this zone, we perform a lot of work that doesn’t move us toward our end product. We tend to make everyone else happy and focus on everyone else’s priorities at the expense of our own.
And then we fall behind on the important work that helps us achieve our end product. This is a dangerous place to work out of all the time. You should not be focusing on these tasks first.
These come after all other important work has been completed.
Quadrant Four: Not Important, Not Urgent
These are tasks that are not part of our 20% or our 80% work. Therefore, this work should be removed from our workflow. Are there really tasks like this at work? You bet there are, but you would be surprised what they might be.
In this quadrant, we are looking at things which directly inhibit you from getting your work done. This would be swiping through social media at work. Or shopping on Amazon while not on a break. And a lot of times, this is when you stop to chit chat with a coworker and the conversation has no value to your work.
Sure, it’s nice to talk with people sometimes, but there is a place for this in your workflow. It comes after you have accomplished some of your important work. And aimless socializing needs to be postponed when you are behind in your work and struggling.
And there are some surprising things which fall into the not important and not urgent category as you are struggling with your productivity. These would be things like non-essential training or engaging in mentor relationships which do not impact your current situation. And most of all, you can skip an optional meeting.
The key for this zone is to remember that if it isn’t moving you closer to your end product and no one is busting down your door to do this task, then don’t do it.
How Do We Use the Eisenhower Matrix?
The way this works best is to remember we have important work as our priority. A list of your important work should be hanging in your workspace so it is easy to remember. We want to do these tasks first. After we complete our morning start-up routine of tasks, we launch into the important work.
Prioritizing any important work that is urgent, we do these tasks right away. Many times they may be quick victories for the day. However, the key is getting them done because they contribute to your end goals and someone is knocking down your door.
Then we move to the important work where there isn’t urgency. These are the bulk of the tasks on the 20% list which we want to be intentional and proactive about in order to achieve our end product or goal.
Then we move to the urgent work which isn’t necessarily important. These are the calls and emails which can wait until after we complete our 20% work. They might also be follow-up items we need to do because our job deems them important, but they do not directly contribute to the end product.
Once these items are completed, you move on to non-important, non-urgent tasks. They are things you don’t need to do, but since you have all your real work done, you can do them. Complete extra training. Chat with some coworkers.
We can also take advantage of the new margin and do something we want to do - like go home early if your next day doesn’t look overly taxing. Otherwise, spend 30-60 minutes working ahead if you have the time and can’t leave work early.
I know it seems so simple when you read it, but it is important to have this in your mind when you are progressing through your daily workflow. It will help you get things done and move toward your end goal.