The skill of prioritizing your work is very, very important.
Spend your time on the right things, at the right time, and you'll find yourself moving forward in life faster than ever before. On the flip side, spending your time on the wrong things, at the wrong moments can leave you feeling unproductive, or worse completely stuck.
Therefore, it is critical that you prioritize your work effectively, to build your life in the best way. And when it comes to prioritization, Dwight D. Eisenhower was one of the best.
Eisenhower was the 34th President of the United States. The impact of the things he did, both during his presidency and throughout his life are still being felt today:
- Serving as Supreme Commander for the Allied forces in World War II
- Launching the program for the Interstate Highway System in the United States
- Laying the foundation for the internet (DARPA)
- The beginning of space exploration (NASA)
Eisenhower's skill in prioritizing was impressive because he was able to sustain his grand achievements throughout his entire life, even in the most challenging of situations. For this reason, it's no surprise that the Eisenhower Matrix has become such an effective and popular decision making tool even until today.
The Eisenhower Matrix
The Eisenhower Matrix is the perfect balance between simple and effective. The main premis of it is that the importance of a task is different from the urgency of it. That is, a task that will have a high impact might be done later; similarily, a task that should be done immediately might not be very important.
"What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important"
– Dwight Eisenhower
Thus, we come to a matrix that seeks to handle important tasks and urgent tasks differently, as they should be.
For our purposes:
- Importance means the task will have a high impact
- Urgent means the task needs to be done quickly
Take a look at the graphic of the Eisenhower Matrix below. In the next few sections, we'll dive into the specifics of the different quandrants of the matrix.
DO – Important & Urgent
A task which is important and urgent is a must do. It'll have a large impact or consequences if not completed by a specific date or time. Thus, the best thing is to do these tasks first thing and to handle them yourself.
Some examples of DO tasks for you might be:
- Respond to angry customer complaint
- Get your dry cough checked out by a doctor
- Paying overdue bills
- Finish the project for your client to be reviewed tomorrow
- Buy your significant other a present for Valentine's Day today
- In general, anything with a deadline that you affects your life and work
Do first things first. Judge the importance of your tasks based how large the impact is, especially if it is related to an important life category: health, career, finances, and family. Judge the urgency of the task based on the deadline time.
SCHEDULE – Important, But Not Urgent
Some tasks do have a big impact, but don't need to be done right away. If the task doesn't have a deadline or the impact is small for now (getting bigger later), then it can probably be pushed back. You can schedule the tasks to be done at a later date or time once it becomes more of a priority.
Some eamples of SCHEDULE tasks for you might be:
- Time for exercise
- Side projects you want to try
- Groceries, chores, and non-critical house maintenance
- Long-term financial planning
- Networking events
- In general, anything that has a large impact but won't hurt you if you do it later
Typically, move back anything that you can. You likely already have many DO things on your plate, so if you can SCHEDULE something for a later date and time, it helps to give you some breathing room. Just make sure that you have a rock solid schedule so that you eventually get to it.
DELEGATE – Not Important, But Urgent
Some tasks might need to be done urgently but won't have a large impact on your life. Typically speaking, such tasks are small, menial, and kind of annoying. The best thing to do with those tasks is to shift the load to someone else by delegating.
Is there someone else that can do the task for you? Can you pay someone to do it? Can you automate it through a digital tool or app? At the very least, is there someone that can help you to do it more easily?
Some eamples of DELEGATE tasks for you, along with how you can delegate them, might be:
- Filing your taxes due in two days – get an accountant
- Unimportant work meetings – can this just be an email?
- Answering non-critical emails – have an auto-reply or hire an assitant
- Booking meetings – there are digital tools that can handle this for you
- Editing an article – hire an editor, or at least use a digital tool like Grammarly
- Compiling summarising reports – ask an employee to do the main work, then refine it yourself later
All of the above examples need to be done, but probably aren't worth your own time. Thus, if you can get someone else to handle it or use a digital tool to automate it, then you can spend your own valuable time on the more important tasks. Time is money.
DELETE – Not Important & Not Urgent
Then there are the tasks that somehow landed on your plate but are not in any way important or urgent. They may have come to you from a colleague, friend, or just your own habits that create extra clutter.
In any case, it is best to delete these tasks from your life entirely. Don't do them, don't schedule them for later, don't even think about them. They are not worth your time or money. In doing so, you will find that your day becomes much more productive.
Some eamples of DELETE tasks for you might be:
- A meeting with no agenda
- Checking social media notifications
- Watching TV
- Eating junk food
- Mindless internet surfing
- Hanging out with toxic friends
As you can see, DELETE tasks often don't fit into any important category like work, finances, health, or relationships. They have little to no positive impact on your life and look a lot like procrastination. For these reasons, they are best left untouched.
Something you might find helpful is to replace those bad tasks with something better. For example, replace your TV time with family member conversations. Replace social media with networking events. Replace those no agenda meetings with important work or tell the person to add an agenda.
Your time is extremely precisious. Things that are not important to your life nor urgent to get done aren't worth a single second of it. Just delete them.
Helpful Details About the Matrix
In addition to the theme of important vs urgent, there are two additional concepts about the matrix that will help you apply it most effectively.
Elimination over optimisation
It may be tempting to try to finish everything, to do all of the work on your plate. But practically speaking that's never possible. We all have limited time and energy, which isn't enough to complete everything that lands in front of you. As such, you want to make sure you spend those limited resources on the right things.
The easiest way to do that is to drop anything that's not mission critical. Management master Peter Drucker used to say:
"Nothing is quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all"
In other words, even if you can do something fast you're still going to be spending greater than zero time. With elimination, you spend no time at all.
Check the impact
The importance of a thing is based on its impact. Thus, when trying to see if something is important to you and priotizing it, ask yourself:
"How big of an impact will the completion (or incompletion) have on my life? How much will it move me forward once completed?"
There are tasks at work that increase your chances of successful project delivery and other which do not. There are financial decisions such as which house to buy that have a strong effect on your financial future. Others, like whether you should rush to the store to grab those headpones on sale, are much less critical.
By asking the above two questions you put things into clear perspective. They help you determine which tasks will actually move the needle and which are more of side-missions. Then, you will be able to focus your valuable time on the work that matters.
The Eisenhower Matrix is a wonderful tool for decision making. It simplifies the process and I use it in many different areas in my life one way or another. Do the work that matters in the right order – that is the key to productivity.