U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower is considered to be one of the greatest and most productive leaders of our time.

He was a five-star general in the United States Army during World War II, served as Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe, and in 1951 became the first Supreme Commander of NATO.

During his two terms as the 34th President of the United States (1953-1961) he launched the Interstate Highway System, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA). By the way, DARPA supported the launch of the Internet and research in the artificial intelligence fields of speech recognition and signal processing.

Urgent vs Important

Dwight D. Eisenhower had an incredible ability to sustain his productivity at work and in life for decades. One of the core principles that guided him through his life and career was:

“What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.”

Urgent: things requiring immediate action or attention.

Important: things of great significance or value, that contribute to our long-term vision, mission, goals. Sometimes important things are also urgent, but typically they are not.

Our time should be devoted MOSTLY to the most important tasks if we want to achieve the most important goals. At work, whether you run your own company or work for someone else, only a few things will get you closer to the goal at any given point in time. The same goes for achieving your dreams and goals in life. Not every project is equally important, not every meeting is equally important, and not every task needs to be completed.

Therefore we need to stop and think before we take on any task. We need to separate urgent from important, otherwise we will be spending most of our time on managing crises and putting out the fires, and as a result – suffering from burnout or unfulfillment in life.

The Eisenhower Matrix: 4 types of tasks

Let’s look at a very powerful concept and approach to planning time and making decisions about our priorities and how we allocate time. 

This method (The Eisenhower Matrix) is said to have been used by U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower for making decisions and allocating time. Later on, Steven R. Covey popularized it in his bestseller 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

All of the time for our tasks, projects, etc. in any area of life can be divided into 4 segments. Anything we do will fall in some of these 4 segments:

The Eisenhower Matrix: How to Be More Productive at Work

These quadrants are:

Q1: Important and Urgent

This is our “crisis and fire fighting” segment, when we need to put out fires, manage crises, act immediately.

Examples for Q1: crises, deadlines, some meetings, projects, client problems, boss’s requests

We MUST do these actions. No excuses. They are important, because they help us move closer to our goals, but they are often unplanned or unwanted.

There will always be something in this quadrant, since we live in an imperfect world – life brings its own challenges, and emergencies always happen. However, our aim is to minimize “crises” over the long run.

After you have resolved an emergency, devote some time to analyzing the reasons behind it and how you can prevent it in the future (and this is your Quadrant 2 time). Unfortunately, many people will deal with an emergency, then go on without doing anything that might prevent its recurrence. This is one of the reasons they deal with the same issues over and over again and have to spend so much time in Q1 dealing with emergencies. Be different, and you’ll be more effective.

Q2: Important and Not Urgent

This is our “prevention and growth” segment.

Examples for Q2: planning, preparation process, creating preventive systems, building relationships, personal growth, relaxation.

Eventually, we need to spend most of our time here. This requires a change in mindset – thinking long-term and preventively. We often neglect these important tasks and issues, because they’re not urgent (yet!) and we tend to spend more time on things that require our immediate attention.

For example, if I don’t take care of my body by exercising everyday (Q2), the day will come when I’ll have health issues I need to deal with urgently (Q1), which will jeopardize not only how I feel at that moment but also future opportunities and what I could become, do or have.

The same principle applies at work.

We need to schedule important things intentionally and do them while they’re not urgent, and develop systems and processes to prevent things from becoming urgent. The more we think this way and discipline ourselves to do these things, the more results we’ll see and the happier we’ll be.

Q3: Not Important and Urgent

This is your “illusion of importance” segment.

Examples for Q3: Interruptions by colleagues, some phone calls, some emails, some requests from partners, certain meetings

Activities in this segment are usually confused with activities in Q1, because they’re urgent. These activities cannot be scheduled ahead of time. They come without warning and are hard to ignore, since urgency demands our attention. But these activities are rarely really important and they rarely help us to progress toward our goals and highest priorities. That’s why I call this quadrant the “illusion of importance”.

We need to find a quick way to deal with distractions.

It helps to turn off notifications on your computer and phone, and sometimes to turn the phone off completely. Get yourself lost to others, so you simply cannot be interrupted. If someone interrupts you anyway, and it’s not your boss, say right away that you’re busy and ask them to state their question quickly. They’ve already disturbed you, so listen to their request, send them away politely by redirecting them to someone else, or say that you’ll get back to them later, then make a quick note so you don’t forget, and continue working on your important tasks. Or if you have the opportunity, delegate these tasks.

Q4: Not Important and Not Urgent

This is our “procrastination and waste of time” segment. Sometimes it’s because we don’t want to tackle a complex or unpleasant task, or we don’t have the motivation to do what’s important. In any case, we’re wasting our time and the tasks we’re avoiding will come back to us at some point as urgent.

Examples for Q4: time wasters and time killers, social media, games, watching TV, surfing the Internet, coffee breaks.

Don’t spend any time here at all, unless:

  • Your daily work is closely connected to social media.
  • You have a break between finishing an important tasks and starting another one, and you use these activities as a reward :). In that case, they become part of your Q2 activities.

Otherwise, analyze what activities you do that fit into this quadrant, stop doing them and spend this valuable time in Q2 and Q1.

Start working on a task you don’t like and you’ll notice that as you’re working on it, you feel better and it’s not as bad as it appeared to be. Usually the start is difficult, but once we get started, it becomes easier.

The Eisenhower Matrix: How to Be More Productive at Work 2

The majority of people, especially in the corporate world, spend most of their time in Q1, Q3, and Q4, for different reasons. In my opinion, most common reasons are:

  • Lack of planning or goals are not clear
  • Tendency to not take action, to procrastinate
  • Cannot say NO

But you’re in a different position now and can change that in your situation. Your ultimate aim – spend at least 70% of time in Q2, 20% in Q1 and 10% in Q3.

The Eisenhower Matrix: How to Be More Productive at Work 3

What you can do about it

You achieve this aim in 2 leaps:

STEP 1 – You need to start focusing on tasks in Q1 and Q2 by getting rid of Q4 and resolving Q3 activities and tasks quickly.

STEP 2 – After that, your main focus will be to spend the majority of your time in Q2, moving from “fire fighting” (Q1) toward creating preventive actions and systems (Q2).

Doing this will enable you to  avoid stress and spend less time at work, while dramatically increasing your effectiveness and productivity. Don’t try to do everything at once – follow incremental steps. But get started!

You might also enjoy these articles:

Two Simple Steps to Help You Choose Between Equal Priorities

How to Plan Your Time to Get the Most Important Things Done

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