Tasks are constantly landing in your inbox and the work just keeps piling up. But you have limited time and you’re overwhelmed by having so many tasks to complete. You don’t know where to start: what can you put off and what requires urgent attention? This is where the Eisenhower method comes in. Learn to apply it, and not only will you succeed in surviving those chaotic days, but you will discover that you can be much more productive than you ever thought possible.
The accumulation of tasks on increasingly longer to-do lists is one of the most common sources of stress for workers. It can lead us to make wrong decisions and negatively impact our performance. It is crucial to look for preventive measures that help you to avoid this downward spiral. Instead, they will help you to be assertive, even during the busiest periods. We often encounter problems when prioritising certain tasks over others. Let the Eisenhower method help you distinguish the urgent from the important.
A little history: from the Normandy landings to your desk
Dwight D. Eisenhower is mostly known for his American presidency in the mid-20th century. But a few years earlier, during the Second World War, he was a high-ranking military commander who organised and executed Allied Forces missions in Europe, as well as invasions of North Africa, Germany and France. The accomplishment for which he is most recognized was his key role in the Normandy landings on June 6, 1944.
Eisenhower led the planning of these operations and he also served as liaison between the 13 allied countries involved in the biggest seaborne invasion in history; quite an accomplishment in terms of internal organisation. The operation was a success and resulted in the recovery of Nazi-occupied French territory. Regardless of its political, military and social consequences, for Eisenhower this victory moved him one step closer to the White House.
Of the productivity management techniques used by the military at the time, Eisenhower ended up perfecting the “decision method”, shortened to what is known today as the Eisenhower method. It allows employees to make appropriate decisions according to the level of importance or urgency of pending tasks.
Is it urgent? Or important?
Being able to distinguish between urgent and important tasks forms the basis of the Eisenhower method. It is a seemingly simple process, but when you put it into practice it may require considerable thought because we tend to think, “everything is urgent” or “everything is important”. So, how do we differentiate the urgent from the important?
Urgent tasks are those that require immediate action. We cannot put them on hold and wait for the right moment to address them because not dealing with these tasks would have negative consequences for our work. For example:
- Responding to emails when other team members need critical replies to take their next steps.
- Fixing coding errors that have caused a client’s website to crash.
- Replacing damaged equipment that is essential to continue working.
Important tasks are those that help you to achieve your long-term goals. For example, defining a sales strategy for a new product, preparing a budget or launching a selection process to procure equipment. This also includes any task that affects your personal growth and development, such as further training to grow as a professional, working on your personal branding, and reading books on productivity and project management. You shouldn’t neglect these areas, even if you’re trying desperately to finish urgent tasks.
The definition of “important” in the Eisenhower method has a lot to do with us personally. The importance of a task—not its urgency—is also measured according to the possibility of delegating it to another person. Ask yourself if you are the only one who can solve it.
The four quadrants of the Eisenhower method
The Eisenhower method, also known as the Eisenhower box or the Eisenhower matrix, involves separating all tasks and pending work into four basic subcategories.
- Urgent and important. These are the tasks that must be done immediately, without delegation or delay. For example, writing a report when the deadline is extremely close.
- Important, but not urgent. These are the tasks that you must take care of yourself given their importance, but that you don’t need to execute immediately, so you can put them off a little. For example, redesigning your personal webpage.
- Urgent, but not important. The tasks that require immediate attention, yet you can delegate them to a third party so you can focus on what is important. For example, solving a client’s technical problem.
- Neither urgent nor important. These are the tasks that you can postpone without repercussions or put aside if you have something else to do. For example, watching the last season of Silicon Valley.
Although it seems that some tasks can be placed in any of the four quadrants above, Eisenhower once said: “I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.” This means that tasks that are both urgent and important are rare, so if, when you try to implement this method, you have a high percentage of urgent and important tasks, you may be doing something wrong when classifying them.
At this point, you may feel that this method is not for you. Indeed, it is aimed primarily at middle and senior managers who have greater room for manoeuvring decision-making and the authority to delegate parts of their job to others. However, separating your tasks according to these quadrants can help you decide which tasks to start in order to work more productively—and this goes for your personal life as well!
Next step: now what?
Once you have differentiated the urgent from the important and have distributed your tasks according to the four quadrants, take the following steps to integrate the Eisenhower method into your daily schedule:
- Urgent and important: DO. Without putting it off, before doing anything else.
- Important, but not urgent: PLAN. You can dedicate yourself to this set of tasks once you have resolved the urgent ones, but make sure you include them in your planning. Don’t forget to schedule them in! Never lose sight of the important tasks: constantly skipping important things leaves you with more time to sort out urgent tasks, but it limits your personal growth and development in the long term.
- Urgent, but not important: DELEGATE. Another person can solve the task without you slowing down the process.
- Neither urgent nor important: ELIMINATE. Those activities on your list that are not going to contribute or add any value are the type that you can discard without a second thought.
Discarding tasks is something we often resist, as we tend to consider many tasks important or urgent when in fact they are neither. It is crucial to know how to spot them and to be honest with yourself to avoid jobs that have little value monopolising your time.
The main objective of this method, beyond helping you to organise yourself better and increase your productivity, is to keep track of all those tasks that help your personal development. Personal growth is often overshadowed by the urgencies—or supposed urgencies—of the day. If you keep in mind that the important does not always coincide with the urgent, and that not all tasks deserve your attention in the same way, you can devote more time to those that will help you grow as a professional.
Translated by Sunita Maharaj-Landaeta
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