Focus on the Important, not just the Urgent

Here's a riddle...

You can’t save it.
You can't borrow it. 
You can't lend it. 
You can't steal it.
You can't take it with you.
You can only do two things with it -- use it or lose it.
What is it?

The answer...TIME!

Newsflash: we each have the exact same amount of time in a day.

That's 24 hours, 1,440 minutes, or 86400 seconds each day. 

So why are some people more productive than others? The answer is simple: Time Management

While we don't have control over time, we can control the way we use it. The world's most successful people are masters at prioritizing and planning, which allows them to accomplish more in a day than most of us can do in a week. 

Time management isn't a new or unfamiliar concept. We start hearing about it in grade school, learn some pretty hefty lessons about it in college, and are forced to focus on it every day as adults in the real world. There are literally hundreds of techniques out there and new ones are popping up all the time -- especially as technology advances. 

But I'm about to take it old school and teach you a method that originated well before you were born. A concept that is quite simple yet often overlooked: focus on the important, not just the urgent. 

In a follow up to last week's post, 5 Proven Techniques to Boost Your Productivity, this week we're doing a deep dive on the Eisenhower Decision Matrix

Read on to learn how to navigate time management like a boss by categorizing and prioritizing tasks based on their urgency and importance. PLUS I've created an awesome *free* gift, just for you, to get you started on your productivity journey! 


First, a little history lesson...

As a former history major, excuse me while I geek out for a moment and give you a brief history on where the name Eisenhower Matrix came from... 

The Eisenhower Matrix is a productivity and time management technique based on an unverified quote often credited to eisenhower. 

The Eisenhower Matrix is a productivity and time management technique based on an unverified quote often credited to eisenhower. 

Dwight D. Eisenhower was basically the OG of GSD.
(non-millennial translation: historically, Eisenhower was a pro at being productive.) 

Before serving as the 34th President of the United States from 1953-1961, Eisenhower was a five-star general in the United States Army and served as Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces during WWII. He was also responsible for reducing Cold War tensions, developing the interstate highway system, and creating NASA. 

Needless to say, this dude was faced with endless demands and forced to make tough decisions on the reg

The key to his success? Focusing on the important.

Eisenhower used to say that we often confuse the urgent with the important, the important with the urgent. When we start prioritizing tasks based on importance and urgency, we can make better use of our time. 

And so, the Eisenhower Matrix was born! 

While Eisenhower may been responsible for the premise of this technique, it was truly popularized decades later by Stephen R. Covey, in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. In Habit #3: Put First Things First, Covey presents a four-quadrant grid, which he calls the Time Management Matrix -- a framework for organizing and prioritizing your tasks based on their relative importance and relative urgency. In it's simplest form, Covey's system allows you to become comfortable saying "no" so that you are focusing and managing your time based on things you, personally, find of most worth.  If you do not take control of your schedule, it will take control of you. Or as Covey puts it, "The key is not to prioritize what's on your schedule but to schedule your priorities." 


Don't Be Busy, Be Productive. 

If you find yourself constantly busy but never truly productive, the Eisenhower Matrix is an excellent technique to start with to make real progress in your productivity. The central focus of the Eisenhower Matrix is to start classifying tasks by their urgency and importance so that you can better allocate your time.  

So, what’s the difference between Urgent and Important

Urgent Tasks: Activities that demand your attention right now and are usually associated with achieving someone else’s goals.
Important Tasks: Activities that have an outcome and contribute to your long-term goals

While it may seem easy to distinguish between the two, we rarely plot our day out with proper balance which can leave us feeling busy instead of productive.  In fact, we often get stuck spending most of our time on urgent unimportant tasks when we should really be spending most of our time dedicated to important tasks.

By classifying tasks by their Urgency (Urgent or Not Urgent) and their Importance (Important or Not Important), we are able to overcome our natural instinct to tend to unimportant urgent activities and can, instead, focus on spending time doing what is essential to achieving our long-term success.

Here's how it works:

  1. Write down a list of everything you do throughout the day, as well as additional tasks that need to get done.
  2. Next to each item on the list, classify it as either Important or Unimportant, and Urgent or Not Urgent.
  3. Prioritizing tasks by urgency and importance results in 4 quadrants with different work strategies (as displayed in the picture below). Write each task in the appropriate quadrant to see how you allocate your time. 

Important + Urgent = Do Now
- Crises, Deadlines, Emergencies
- These are both urgent and important and therefore should not be ignored. Do them immediately. 
- Examples: project due at 5:00pm today; family member in emergency room; upset call from largest client

Important + Not Urgent = Schedule
- Planning, Improvement, Relationships
- These are the things that are important, though not necessarily urgent. According to Stephen R. Covey in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, you should seek to spend most of your time in this quadrant as these are the activities that provide lasting happiness, fulfillment, and success. Therefore, you should schedule them to ensure they happen. 
- Examples: exercising; project prep; meditating; meet with financial planner; date night; taking a leadership class

Not Important + Urgent = Delegate
- Interruptions, Many Meetings, Phone Calls
- These are things that are urgent but less important and should therefore be delegated to others. 
- Examples: ringing phones; booking flights; attending unnecessary meetings; scheduling meetings

Not Important + Not Urgent = Discard
- Time Wasters, Busy Work, Mindless Pleasures
- Neither urgent nor important. Bye Felicia!
- Examples: mindlessly surfing the web; binging on Netflix; busywork; sorting through junk mail

How to use the Eisenhower Matrix in your life:

Now you know how the Eisenhower Matrix works, let's start incorporating it into your day. 

And it's your lucky day because I've created a FREE Worksheet on the Eisenhower Matrix to join you in this journey! 

Click the link above to download and read on....


Our main goal here is to maximize your time by recording how you currently spend your days/weeks, assessing which quadrants your tasks fall under, and making adjustments for the future. 

Ready? Let's get started...

  1. Download the free worksheet or draw your own Eisenhower Matrix.
  2. Write down all of the upcoming tasks that you need to get done & classify them as Important or Not Important, Urgent or Not Urgent
  3. Write the tasks in the appropriate quadrants. 
  4. Assess, adjust, assess and adjust some more. The last step is the most critical one, as you will continually strive to make improvements to your Eisenhower Matrix in order to maximize your time. Remember, the goal is to spend the majority of your time in Q2. At the end of each week, evaluate how well your time was actually spent and whether or not you should make any adjustments in the future. 

Follow up questions to consider and further guidance for implementing change:

Even if you try the Eisenhower Matrix just once, its basic premise will make a big difference on how you look at prioritizing your time. If you're interested in taking it a step further, I encourage you to read on and consider these follow up questions and guidance. 

  1. Looking at your completed Eisenhower Matrix, where do you spend most of your time? How do you feel about that?
    • Remember, Q2 is where you should be spending majority of your time. Based on where you spend most of your time,  here's how you're probably feeling:
      • Majority of time in Q1: stressed, burnt out, stuck in crisis mode
      • Majority of time in Q2: visionary, balanced, focused, in control (Yay! Go, you!)
      • Majority of time in Q3: unfocused, victimized, spread too thin, busy (not productive)
      • Majority of time in Q4: irresponsible, lazy, ultimate procrastinator
  2. Are you dedicating enough time to Q2 tasks? If not, how can you focus more of your time here? What is missing from Q2 that should be a priority? What can you start scheduling?
    • In order to ensure Q2 tasks happen you should schedule them ahead of time even before digging into the tasks in Q1. 
    • What I learned by practicing this method for the last few months is to schedule Q2 tasks on my calendar before I even start any Q1 tasks. The process of scheduling important/not-urgent tasks before tackling tasks that are both urgent and important may seem irresponsible to some, but what it actually does is guarantee responsibility for your own personal priorities. This requires discipline and, trust me, it's well worth it. 
    • More importantly, by scheduling/planning activities in Q2, I avoid them ending up in Q1 in the future.
    • When I reviewed my actual week in comparison to my preplanned week, I noticed that many of the items in Q1 could have been foreseen. If I would have scheduled them ahead of time, they wouldn't have become urgent. This was the biggest benefit of the Eisenhower Matrix for me because it really emphasized how much control I truly have when it comes to avoiding stress in the future. 
  3. What are some ways you can start delegating Q3 tasks? 
    • I can see how some people can struggle here. Whether you're a solopreneur, single mom, or part of a small team, sometimes it's impossible to delegate tasks to someone else if you're the only person. This is where I encourage you to think outside of the box. Here are some alternative things to consider:
      • Mitigate Interruptions: Back during my corporate HR days, I was faced with a constant flow of questions from my employees in every form possible -- phone, email, and even the regular drive-by at my desk. It was easy for me to fall into the busyness trap. When I started assessing my time management using Eisenhower Technique, I quickly recognized these questions fell under Q3 -- not important/urgent. Unfortunately, being part of a small team, there wasn't anyone I could delegate to so I was forced to come up with an alternative solution. Luckily I'm an overachiever, so I came up with two!
        • First, I started scheduling "Office Hours" twice a week (an hour on Tuesday mornings and an hour on Thursday afternoons), to answer people's questions. I sent an email to the company announcing the Office Hours, committing to responding to email questions and making myself available for in-person questions during that time. Furthermore, I asked employees to please put "URGENT" in the subject line of the email if they had questions that absolutely needed to be answered within 24 hours. 
      • Automate: look for opportunities to automate tasks, build processes and systems. 
        • The second way I solved the problem I mentioned above, was through automation. I started keeping a running list of questions people asked and built a FAQ section on our corporate portal. While this required some additional time in the short term, the long term benefits were substantial. 
      • By Mitigating Interruptions and Automating, I went from an average of 7 hours a week spent on questions and interruptions (I can't even begin to think about how much my productivity must have been negatively impacted each time an interruption knocked me out of my flow) to a max of 2 hours per week. As time went on, my office hours would often be free and that would allow me to catch up on other work. Priceless!
      • There are plenty of other ways to minimize your Q3 tasks, you just have to get creative with it. I encourage you to figure out which tasks you are spending the most frequent time on, and brainstorm ways to reduce that. For example, if you spend 30 minutes every day manually cleaning up your inbox, perhaps you can spend 30 minutes one day building rules in your email to pre-filter your emails for you and now that Q3 task drops from 30 minutes a day to 15 minutes a day. You just gained a whole 75 minutes back in your week! 
  4. Looking at Q4, when do you find yourself spending time on things that you should discard? How can you avoid procrastinating in the future?
  • We live in the age of procrastination, everywhere I look there's an opportunity for something to distract me. The biggest culprit? Social media. Sometimes we just need to numb out for a few minutes but before we know it, we get sucked into blackhole of Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, or YouTube. (side note: my latest productivity killer? Youtube Beauty Tutorials. #dontdoit)  
  • Creating a list of your most common procrastination habits is a great place to start. From there, you can put plans in place to avoid those triggers or set better boundaries when it comes to procrastination. A great one I use is setting a 5 minute timer for browsing Facebook, which I can only do after I've completed the first 2 items on my to-do list. I give myself permission to procrastinate on purpose and once the timer goes off, I jump right back into work! 

Above all else, remember this: while you can't control time, you can control the way you use it. As Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said, "Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least."

Key Takeaways:

Stop confusing urgent as important. When it comes to managing our time, one of the biggest mistakes we make is focusing on urgent tasks first. Most of the time urgent isn't important. 

Tasks are either important or not important, urgent or not urgent. By understanding where in the four quadrants our time is being spent, we’re able to make better use of our time.

Start with Q2 Tasks and spend majority of your time here. The next action you take after filling out your Eisenhower Matrix should be to schedule important non-urgent tasks FIRST. Just schedule, not do. Then, you can turn your attention to urgent, important tasks found in Q1. 

Avoid busyness. Truly successful people don't focus on busy work, they focus on being productive by dedicating majority of their time on goals and tasks that will produce results. 

Think outside the box. Delegating Tasks is not always possible, so ask yourself: If I can't delegate, can I automate? 

Eliminate less important tasks. Reduce, and when necessary say no to, less important tasks. Or you can simply ask yourself: Can this wait until later? Most of the time the answer will be yes

Plan weekly and daily, assess and adjust regularly. Sometimes you need to take a step back so you can properly assess how you should be spending your time and how you are actually spending it. By doing this every few months, you can adjust your approach to ensure you are spending the proper time on things that produce long-term results. 

You can't control time, but you can control the way you use it. 

One last note...

Be sure to check back in next week, where we'll be doing a deep dive on the next Productivity Technique: The Ivy Lee Method. 

In the meantime, I would love to know your thoughts on the Eisenhower Matrix. How has it improved your productivity and time management skills and what was the biggest thing you learned? You can comment below or give me a shout at I respond to each and every email that comes into my inbox. 

Alternatively, if time management is an area you struggle in, what is currently not working for you?
I LOVE working with clients to maximize their potential with minimal effort and bet I could help! You can learn about my services here or feel free to schedule a discovery call to chat with me directly. 

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