Dwight Eisenhower was a five-star general in the Army and Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force during World War II. He was responsible for the successful invasion of Normandy in 1944-45 and later ordered the extensive photographic documentation of Nazi concentration camps as evidence for the Nuremberg Trials. He’d go on to become Army Chief of Staff, president of Columbia University, and the first Supreme Commander of NATO. Then he’d just so happen to serve 8 years as the 34th President of the United States.
It’s fair to say, then, that Dwight Eisenhower knew a thing or two about how to get stuff done. And that’s precisely why his thoughts on time management are worth attention.
What Is the Eisenhower Matrix?
Eisenhower believed that urgency and importance were the defining factors in how we should allocate our time. The Eisenhower matrix – popularised by Stephen Covey in his bestselling self-improvement book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (UK, US) – takes these principles and splits them into four quadrants. Each of these quadrants defines the degree of urgency and importance, and then suggests a commensurate action (as per the below).
Once we’ve assessed the urgency and importance of our tasks and placed them into the relevant quadrant, we can turn to the actions. It’s here where it’s worth digging beneath the surface.
Quadrant 1 – Urgent and Important
Tasks that are both urgent and important are things we need to get done immediately. If you’re in a burning building, you need to get out. Equally, if you have an unprepared presentation to deliver in 30 minutes, you need to get your act together and prepare it.
I point to these two ridiculously contrasted actions because they provide a useful lesson on this quadrant. Tasks can be unforeseen (assuming you’ve not deliberately set the building on fire or ignored some blatantly foreseeable trigger) and foreseen.
The central point is that where the urgent and important can be foreseen, they shouldn’t become urgent in the first place. When important tasks creep up on us like this, it’s a classic sign of procrastination. And we can’t counter this procrastination overnight. To combat against it, we need to understand its psychology (more on that here) and contrary to the procrastinator’s manual, we need to plan ahead.
The action in this quadrant is simple: get it done. But if we spend too much time in this quadrant, we risk burnout and shoddy output. The ambition, then, should be to minimise our time in Quadrant 1 and shift our time allocation to Quadrant 2. As I’ll explain now, this is where the magic happens.
Quadrant 2 – Not Urgent and Important
When time is allocated to tasks that are important and not yet urgent, we have a real opportunity to generate long-term value. This is the space in which we work towards long-term goals and projects. It’s the space in which results are the fruits of consistency and planning.
But we need to pick these priorities wisely. Of course, some priorities are picked for us within our jobs (here is where planning and scheduling can shift future work from Quadrant 1 to Quadrant 2).
But outside of work we also need to bake in time for leisure (or deep play) and personal growth. Indeed, recent research published in the Journal of Applied Psychology even suggests off-work activities that give us a sense of mastery have a much greater positive impact on levels of work motivation.
Take a personal example. Reading non-fiction is an important part of my personal growth. It grows my knowledge and often serves as inspiration for some of the ideas on this blog. But heck, it isn’t urgent. I don’t get burnt alive in the building if I don’t do it. I don’t get fired if I screw it up. Instead, it’s about long-term growth.
I’ve come to believe that this long-term growth is the secret sauce. It’s in these journeys, even struggles, that we generate long-term value and satisfaction. It’s never really about the destination.
Quadrant 2 is immeasurably important for two reasons. First, it’s the space in which we plan ahead. In this space we can calmly and proficiently address our work, producing quality output. Second, it’s the space for long-term personal growth. For reasons I’ve already explained, finding this time is the most important thing we can do with our lives.
Quadrant 3 – Urgent and Not Important
The ambition, therefore, should be to maximise our time in Quadrant 2. But spare a thought for a moment for the unimportant. The unimportant can still generate value, and can quickly become important if we don’t get them done.
In the workplace, the urgent but unimportant might take the form of emails, calendar invites and other ad hoc work. At home, tasks like washing up the dishes or doing the laundry can become urgent, but they remain pretty unimportant.
The Eisenhower matrix suggests we should delegate the urgent and unimportant. The premise is that the tasks aren’t important, so we don’t need to have close control over them. By definition, less important work flows downstream in the workplace (or as some colleagues have more bluntly put it, “sh*t flows downhill”).
But delegation isn’t always going to work. First, continuous delegation of the unimportant shows a lack of trust in the people we’re working with. “Why, if I’m a valued member of the team, do I keep receiving this unimportant but urgent work? When will I get to do something that adds long-term value?”
Second, sometimes we can’t delegate to the unwilling. (Try, at your peril, telling your other half that you’ve decided to delegate the washing up because the Eisenhower matrix suggests it’s a good idea.)
And third, and perhaps most importantly, we should be asking ourselves why we’re doing the unimportant in the first place. And how, if it’s so unimportant, has it become so urgent?
This is where a minimalist mindset can help us work smarter, spending less time in this quadrant and more time in Quadrant 2. As we move to Quadrant 4, this is precisely the kind of approach that the Eisenhower matrix advocates.
Quadrant 4 – Not Urgent and Not Important
Let’s start with a simple premise: time spent on tasks which are not urgent and not important is time wasted. What’s important here is that we distinguish activities that sit in Quadrant 2. Going on holiday, relaxing, socialising and exercising are all examples of important activities. They may not be urgent, but they bring long-term value. This, of course, is not time wasted.
Now let’s turn to some examples of Quadrant 4 activities. The aimless scroll on social media, the pointless meeting to talk about another meeting, the needless email traffic – all these things are examples of time wasted. The problem is that these pointless habits and ‘tasks’ accumulate, often leaving us more stressed when it comes to approaching work that matters.
This is all thoroughly counterproductive, and that’s why it requires a firm response. The Eisenhower matrix suggests we should eliminate these activities entirely. If they’re not urgent and they’re not important, why bother? These things are just slowing us down, eating into the precious time we could be using to generate long-term value.
- The Eisenhower matrix is an urgency-importance grid for managing our time.
- We should maximise our time on important but non-urgent activities, which help create long-term value.
- A minimalist mindset can help us move our focus from the unimportant to this value-generating quadrant.