Important, Not Urgent

Do you ever feel like you just can’t get to the stuff you really want to do? You know, the things that will truly move the needle in your life and career? I’ve felt that way a lot, more than I care to admit.

Urgent things will always come at us. They’re like a river. Until you truly take ownership of your own priorities you will constantly be swept away in a flood of someone else’s.

One way to get a handle on what’s really important is to use the Eisenhower Matrix, also known as a time management matrix. Originally presented in Steven Covey’s classic book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, it’s a way to organize and prioritize your to do’s by urgency and importance.

Where It Came From

The idea began during a 1954 speech, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower quoted an unnamed university president who said, “I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.” 

It’s a super-simple concept to help you overcome “urgent” distractions and focus on long term outcomes. It’s especially useful for people who are constantly putting out fires, drowning in busywork or have trouble delegating. Sound good?

How It Works

It begins with pausing to think instead of constantly react.

Ask yourself, what is truly urgent? What is truly important? Urgent matters are always beyond our control. For example, your car breaks down and you have to deal with it immediately. Or a colleague calls in sick and you have to cover for them.

That next app release or quarterly report you’re working on is certainly important, but it’s not due for another few weeks. And some important things might not even have a deadline, like finally updating your portfolio

The problem comes when you spend too much time in firefighting mode and set your own priorities on the back burner. Eventually they also become urgent and it all becomes a vicious cycle. This leads to constant stress and burnout. 

Don’t let that happen to you. Instead, take the time to map out your priorities according to the matrix. 

Take out a piece of paper or notebook and draw a box. Then sub-divide that box into four quadrants. Label the first quadrant as Urgent/Important, the second as Important/Not Urgent, the third as Urgent/Not Important, and the last as Not Urgent/Not Important. Then assign your tasks and activities within each box.

Eisenhower Matrix In Action

Of course the Urgent/Important stuff has to come first. There’s no getting around it. The trick is getting to the point where you can spend most of your time in Quadrant 2, where things are Important, but not Urgent. These are the actions that move you toward your goals. 

While these tasks are easy to put off to put out fires, they have a much bigger impact on your long term success. Instead, protect them by scheduling them on your calendar and following through. 

If you can consistently focus on Quadrant 2 activities, over time you will naturally reduce the number of urgencies in Quadrant 1.

And what about Quadrants 3 and 4? Well, if it’s best to stick to Quadrant 2 activities, you know the answer. These activities are never the highest and best use of your time. It’s much better to delegate them or delete them all together.

If you need a task management tool to help you get things done, Todoist has been my go-to task manager for years. I’d be absolutely lost without it. By combining it with the bigger picture view of the Eisenhower Matrix, it helps me keep track of everything in my world. Give these tools a try and let me know what you think.

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