Dwight Eisenhower wasn't only the 34th President of the United States. Before that, Eisenhower was a five-star general in the Army, responsible for command of the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II, President of Columbia University, Supreme Commander of NATO.
In other words, he was incredibly accomplished.
“The most urgent decisions are rarely the most important ones.”
— Dwight Eisenhower
Eisenhower's productivity is legendary not only because of his accomplishments but also because it stood the test of time and worked in various situations. Through various roles and environments, Eisenhower delivered with remarkable consistency for decades.
The Eisenhower Matrix is his most well-known technique. It's a simple tool to help you make decisions that you can draw on a napkin and start using today.
The Eisenhower Matrix
There are four parts to the Eisenhower Matrix.
- Important, but not urgent.
- Urgent and important.
- Urgent but not important.
- Not important and not urgent.
If you think about it for a second you realize that not only can the Eisenhower Matrix help you prioritize what you work on today, but it's also applicable to deciding which big projects to work on. The matrix helps you distinguish between what it important and what is urgent.
The Difference Between Urgent and Important
Whenever something lands on your desk begin by breaking it down and deciding how to proceed.
The key to making the Eisenhower matrix works is distinguishing between the urgent and the important.
Urgent tasks tend to be things that we previously put off and are now somewhat time sensitive. This can be anything from responding to emails and returning phone calls, to realizing that you're almost out of gas and have a report due in 20 minutes.
Urgent tasks can be divided by which ones were previously important. If the urgent task was previously important, you're putting yourself in a suboptimal position. Because you previously put the task off, you're now in reactive mode. That means you're not going to think about this task as much as you intended to … as much as you should. Odds are your reactive decision on an important task is going to consume vast amounts of future time.
Regardless of whether the task used to be important or not, urgent tasks cause us to be reactive. We're stressed. We're full of anxiety. As a result, we're rarely thinking optimally. This ripples into the future as rushing through things often causes poor decisions that reverberate into the future destroying our future productivity. We have to spend large quantities of time fixing problems that were caused because we were reactive and rushed through them.
Important tasks are more strategic. They are things we want to get done such as launching a new product. These tasks are deliberate. Thoughtful. We want to pay attention to them and they mean something to us. Rather than responsive and irrational, with the right planning, we can be thoughtful and engaged. Because we're not reactive, we can avoid mistakes. This will free up future time.
“Being busy is a form of laziness — lazy thinking and indiscriminate action.”
— Tim Ferriss
The default for most of us it to focus on what's urgent and important. It's only natural that we'd want to focus on the things that need to be dealt with immediately. In so doing, we tend to crowd out things that are important but not urgent.
Ask yourself when you're going to deal with things that are important but not urgent? Ask yourself why you're avoiding what's important but not urgent? Are you scared of something? Are you procrastinating? Are you too distracted?
The Eisenhower Matrix in Practice
I use this matrix routinely as part of my productivity system.
It's helped me stay focused on where I want to go and not get too bogged down in things that don't add much value.
The conventional wisdom is that you should do the urgent and important tasks immediately, schedule time to do the important but not urgent, delegate the urgent but not important, and do the not important and not urgent later.
In practice, I use the tool differently. For instance, the bar to become a task on my radar is higher. Non-Important and non-urgent tasks, often get dropped.
Important and non-urgent tasks are scheduled.
Important and urgent tasks are worked on right away, scheduled, and always evaluated. While I can't plan for everything, when things get piled up here it's often a breakdown in the system — something went wrong.
The Urgent and not important tasks are usually delegated although not always.
Delegation is a bit of a tricky subject for knowledge workers. As a member of the Board of Directors, I generally advocate that companies never outsource their core business. Among other things, this makes dependent on the goodwill and competence of others. You become fragile.
If so while I delegate a lot of the not-important not-urgent tasks, I keep the ones that are part of my core business.