A new day begins. You start by jumping into your Inbox and spot a new mail marked with the highest priority and countless exclamation marks in the subject. A sense of urgency takes over and you immediately start shifting gears. We’ve all been there and it all feels very logical. But is it the right thing to do? Dwight D Eisenhower was a US army general and later became a politician. He came up with his own system to evaluate what is important and urgent, at that point in time. It’s what we now call the Eisenhower Matrix. This article is dedicated to what it is and how you can make smart use of it.
Important and urgent
At first glance these appear to be the same. But there is a big difference. “Important” means that something has weight to it: it has consequences. When we first launched our beGuru software, that was important to us. But we were not in a rush: there was no urgency.
“Urgent” means it needs to get done now or soon. A house on fire is a good example of an urgency. Better start now 😉
With the differences between the two Eisenhower created this now famous matrix. It forces users to make a distinction is it important to you. And then again: is is urgent? Does any task have a combination of the two? Dependant on the outcome you determine your actions. Does it have to get done now or can it wait?
1. Important and urgent
All items in the fir quadrant are important and urgent to you. A house on fire is again a good example for this. Someone is about to lose a lot of precious things if nobody acts now. Many of us will automatically try to take action as soon as we receive new items. Try to resist that urge.
Is this to do, job, action, whatever really that important to you or your job? And does it need to get done now? Only if you are really sure both answers are ‘yes’ then you should act now. If one or more are answered with ‘no’, then proceed and see in which quadrant you should file this item.
2. Important, not urgent
Example: your boss or biggest client steps in and asks you to create some proposal. That might be important to you personally or professionally. Perhaps you can use this to strengthen your connection with your boss or client.
But is it urgent? Ideally it should not be urgent. This is quite a task. You should really take time for such an assignment. If that boss or client is a real professional, there should be ample time.
Make sure you start on time and you should be fine. Plan this ahead so it won’t become urgent. Clearly second quadrant.
3. Urgent, not important
You have said goodbye to one of your clients. This one gave you a hard time from the start: nasty deadlines, no timely payments. Today you have received a call or e-mail of that client asking you to send them a quote. Today.
In this case we have a clear case of an urgency that is not important to you. You have been asked to reply today. But you have clearly decided not to work for this client anymore. If you let you empathy speak up, you might be tempted to file this one in the first quadrant. But don’t let yourself be fooled. This is not an urgency to you: third quadrant.
4. Not urgent, not important
The same client sends you an e-mail for a quote, no deadline. Since you had already decided not to work with this client, now we have no urgency and no importance.
In this case we have a clear fourth quadrant item. If all other quadrants are empty, then you’ll start work on this item. No sooner. I wouldn’t want to say to ignore all items in this quadrant at all times. Just ignore the temptation to start too soon with items in this quadrant.
What is important to you?
What might be very important to me, might be irrelevant to you. And yet we rarely make a clear distinction. Humans seem to be programmed to almost automatically copy the priority of the other.
Eisenhower states that you should not. We all have our own role in any organisation, project or household. That way, it might very well happen that something is important to someone but not for you. Act accordingly.
As a human you might be tempted to help the other one. That makes sense. Just don’t do it without any thought.
So, next time you are approached with something ‘very important’, think before you act. Is it important to you? Tell the other you do want to help. It’s just that you might not be able to act now.
Conclusion Eisenhower Matrix
By labelling your work with the importance and urgency, you will enable yourself to act to the things that are really important now and in the future.
That is what makes the Eisenhower Matrix a great tool. Especially on a busy day, the Eisenhower matrix will prove to be a very good friend.