The Eisenhower Matrix
Sometimes we respond to less important e-mails immediately upon their receipt, while those that really demand our attention languish at the bottom of our in-box. We spend a quarter of an hour on an altogether meaningless call from the bank, and later we do not have sufficient time to call a loved one. We avail ourselves of promotional sales and buy things that later lie unused. Why is this so?
If we were able to properly cope with such situations, we would be more relaxed and could keep our priorities in order with greater ease. This is a particularly important skill, for our time is limited and we simply must learn how to manage it wisely.
Important as opposed to urgent
Does “important” mean the same as “urgent”?
And if not, then can you give an example of something that is urgent, but not important?
During training we devote a module lasting an hour and a half to this issue, analyzing both the difference between these two words and its practical implications. Many participants feel instinctively that the two words have totally distinct meanings, however, it takes us a lot of effort to get down to the essence of this difference.
Put simply, a matter that is urgent has a very close deadline. We have to do something within an hour, or perhaps a day. The question that we must ask ourselves in order to determine whether something is urgent is this: “How much time do I have left?”.
Importance, on the other hand, refers to the significance of a given task – to the consequences of its performance or non-performance.
Completing tax forms is important, for if we fail to do so on time we will receive a penalty and have to resolve the matter with the Inland Revenue Service. And while the performance of this task does not have significant positive results (apart from a possible tax return), failure to do so promptly will have a very significant negative effect.
Calling a loved one or sending him or her an e-mail is important, for doing so is concordant with our values and thereby meaningful. But the consequences of not writing an e-mail or making a call to such a person at this very moment are negligible. As we can see, the significance of a given task may follow from the positive or negative consequences associated with it, and these are not always of equal weight.
And is the completion of tax forms urgent? That depends on how much time we need for the task – on 2 March there is no urgency involved, but on 30 April it would be supercritical!
The four quarters of the Eisenhower Matrix
As we can see, importance and urgency are two completely different concepts. One refers to the significance of a given activity and its anticipated consequences, whereas the other emphasizes the time that we have left to act.
If we place these two concepts on a plane perpendicularly to each other, we obtain what is known as the Eisenhower Matrix, which divides space into four quarters.
Quarter I – matters that are important and urgent – considerable significance and a very close deadline. These may include urgent house repairs, equipment breakdowns, illnesses, the confirmation of arrangements with a customer, and a critical program or industrial process error.
Quarter II – matters that are important, but not urgent – considerable significance, but also considerable time for completion. These may include meetings with loved ones, training courses, books, personal and professional development, and even dreams.
Quarter III – matters that are not important, but urgent – things of little significance, however with a short deadline that forces us to react immediately. This quarter may include e-mails of negligible significance, which we are asked to send promptly, telephone calls from banks and marketing departments (you have 10 seconds to decide whether to take the call!), sales promotions.
Quarter IV – matters that are unimportant and non-urgent – things that are of little significance and have distant deadlines. Here we will usually find all those time-consuming chores that do nothing to improve our energy balance (if they did, they would be important!).
We versus our brain
The main problem which we encounter consists in the fact that that which we consciously want does not correspond with the subconscious functioning of our brain – until this organ is properly trained.
The majority of people would like to spend their lives doing things that are important and weighty, that is the tasks covered by quarters I and II. Most, unfortunately, when we act spontaneously, our brain sabotages our efforts, for high-priority matters force it into a considerably greater emotional response. Thus, our brain involuntarily focuses on the tasks covered by quarters I and III.
The problem, therefore, is that we rush to act without thinking, and later lack time and energy to perform the tasks falling within quarter II – the ones that most people would like to devote the majority of their lives too!
According to research conducted on the basis of the xQ questionnaire, the average employee spends 23% of his or her time in quarter III! Just imagine: one-fourth of your time and your life are devoted to things that are more or less bereft of meaning, but at the same time urgent.
One-fourth of your time and your life are devoted to things that are more or less bereft of meaning,
but at the same time urgent.
How did “urgent” matters come into being?
We may come to equally interesting conclusions by analyzing the origins of the tasks falling within quarter I, that is those which are both important and urgent. How did they get there?
Obviously, some of them are unforeseeable occurrences – problems that could not have been foreseen in any way, which appear suddenly and require our immediate focus. We could, for example, plan a romantic evening at home, but a burst water pipe would necessitate an immediate reaction, thus ruining our plan. We could not foresee such a development.
But to be honest, a large part of the tasks from a quarter I come from … quarter II. We have already found that a task becomes all the more urgent as its deadline closes in. If therefore we take no action on matters that are important but not urgent, the passage of time itself will cause them to drift towards quarter I.
For example, our car may start making weird noises, but we decide to ignore the issue. Initially, the matter is important (e.g. we continue driving our kids to school while getting to work quickly and doing the shopping are both important), but not urgent – we have loads of time to do the planning. Right now, it would be sufficient to call the garage at our leisure and arrange a visit. But if we do nothing, the sounds will become more worrying, and one day the car may break down in the middle of the road – perhaps with two crying children in the back seats. Now the matter is very important and critically urgent – it absolutely requires an immediate reaction.
When therefore we occupy ourselves with things that are unimportant and yet urgent, we are actually consuming the time that we have to plan matters which are important but non-urgent, thereby falling into the trap of focusing ever more attention only on that which requires immediate attention.
What we can do
If we want to utilize our time wisely, we have to teach ourselves the habit of asking about the importance and the urgency of tasks that we get down to. Our brain has a tendency to prioritize things that are urgent, while we would prefer to fill our time with tasks which have considerable importance and are not necessarily urgent.
The next time you run across a short-term promotion or stumble upon the acronym “ASAP”, keep in mind that someone is consciously using the mechanisms that we have just discussed. The moment when we finally recognize this fact is that when we regain our freedom of choice.
Each of us has exactly 24 hours in a day that can be allocated to various activities. And if we start habitually inquiring about the importance of individual tasks, we will be able to determine whether our time is actually being devoted to things that are of importance for us – not only with those which are preferred by our brain due to an impending deadline.
So open up your list of tasks if you have one; if you do not, I sincerely urge you to write down, without further delay, all the tasks that you intend to complete. Draw the Eisenhower Matrix and enter your tasks one by one – and let this visualization remain in your head. Obviously, practically no one uses the Eisenhower Matrix for the purpose of organization on a daily basis, however just thinking about which quarter a given task would be in allows you to concentrate your life on matters that are of greatest importance and get rid of the 23% of things that while urgent, are unimportant.
Understanding the difference between importance and urgency is key. We have to differentiate between the significance of tasks and their negative – or positive – consequences, all the while taking into consideration the pressure of time. Unfortunately, since our brain will subconsciously prefer matters that are urgent and not necessarily important, we run the risk of getting our lives – both private and professional – stuck in a permanent “fire brigade” mode. Avoiding this sorry development is well worth the effort, however, for each of us has 23% of his or her life to recover!