“What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.”
– Dwight D. Eisenhower
The origin of the Eisenhower Matrix varies depending upon who you talk to. Some say that it’s what the General-turned-President used to make decisions quickly. Others say that it was developed later, by other people, based on the quote above. The quote can be definitively attributed to him; the box cannot. Either way, it’s a good system.
For those unfamiliar, the Eisenhower Matrix has to criteria, aligned along an x-y axis, and four boxes. When prioritizing a task, you ask yourself two simple questions, and the task gets places into one of the four boxes. The questions are,
Is this important?
Is this urgent?
Importance always takes priority over urgency. My stomach may be growling because it’s mid-afternoon and I haven’t eaten lunch yet, which makes it seem urgent, but getting this project done is more important. Since the project has a rapidly approaching deadline, it is both urgent and important.
Important and Urgent tasks get top priority, should be done now (if not sooner), and are probably things that you want to handle personally rather than delegate. Katie would say “if it’s not bleeding or on fire, you’re fine.” I would say that if it’s not relevant to your core work at the moment, it’s not a top priority. On my 1-3-5 list, this hits #1.
Important and Not Urgent tasks should be planned and scheduled, so that they’re not forgotten and you have a plan to deal with them. They should also be dealt with personally and not delegated. It’s weird to have to say that, but I know people who delegate important things and then get upset when they get burned. On my 1-3-5 list, these are 3’s, except when I don’t have important and urgent things, then they become 1’s.
Unimportant but Urgent tasks are often the annoying things that you just want to make go away. Phone calls, emails, interruptions, distractions. They have nothing to do with your core work, but they might be important to other people. Delegate them when you can — yes, push it off onto other people so you can get back to your core work. I’ll put these as 5’s on my 1-3-5 list, because of the urgency. This is where I disagree with David Allen, who advocates deal with these quick-hit tasks as they arise to get them over with. I see that as the path to a massive time sink.
Unimportant and Non-Urgent tasks are trivial, irrelevant, and probably personal in nature. They’re time wasters. I really want to watch that YouTube video that someone sent me a link to, or read that blog post about my favorite hobby, but it’s not related to my core work. This is why I started keeping separate to-do lists for business and personal activities. When I’m writing or doing writing-related tasks, doing laundry or answering personal emails is not part of my core work. When I’m trying to have some “me” time, reading a book or watching a movie or hanging out with friends, answering work email is not part of my core work. If it is not relevant to what you’re doing at the moment, to where your attention should be focused, delegate it or dump it. These tasks don’t even hit my 1-3-5 list, and I’ll do them when I get around to it, if at all.