When you’re overwhelmed with everything you haven’t done yet it’s easy to buckle under the stress of having to decide what’s important and what can wait. If your work environment is anything like the typically fast-paced settings… everything is important. In light of this, how do you deal with the classic dilemma of deciding on the important vs the urgent? When you’re confronted with a major source of pressure, (the type where someone is waiting for you to complete a task) do you still maintain a level head and prioritise the important tasks or do you fall into the famous trap of starting with the urgent task so you can “get it out of the way”? At the end of the day do you feel completely sapped and drained of energy like you’ve been running on a treadmill with no break? Then, like many of us, you’re probably confusing the urgent with the important. 

Amongst the many lessons to be gleaned from former US general and president Dwight D. Eisenhower’s leadership, the Eisenhower Decision Matrix has been a real game-changer for both employers and employees. It’s a useful tool to help you get things done. A worthy prioritisation framework and a simple model to help you rethink your approach to long-term strategic planning and productivity. It might be a little radical or focus on extreme prioritisation, but we’re convinced that it will set you on the right path to prioritising like a pro and help you take control of your day. Like most things in life, this principle only works if you are committed and disciplined. Here are some key points to help you effectively implement Eisenhower’s method so you can distinguish between urgent and important tasks, and make real progress in your life.

“What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.”

– Dwight D. Eisenhower 

We’re all given the same hours in a day, it could be that the only thing hindering you from being the champ that you really are is inefficient time management. The inability to manage your time well can create unnecessary problems, difficulty getting organised and even stunt your professional growth. A bulk of the things that take up mental energy, waste time and move you further from your goals can be eliminated by simply knowing the difference between urgent and important tasks. 

 

The difference between urgent and
important tasks

 

According to Eisenhower, urgent tasks are those that require immediate attention. These are the things that can’t be put on hold. “These to-do’s shout NOW and put us in a reactive mode, one marked by a defensive, negative, hurried and narrowly-focused mindset.” These are things with impending deadlines and situations where you have to respond promptly like phone calls, responding to an email, or taking care of a family crisis etc.  

Important tasks are those that contribute to long-term goals and missions. While there are instances where important tasks are urgent, this is not always the case. Important tasks are activities like starting a new project, focusing on that book you want to write, or the pitch you are working on to start your company or gain funding. Notice how these tasks require more time and a strategic approach? Eisenhower believes that when we focus on important activities “we operate in a responsive mode which helps us remain calm, rational and open to new opportunities.”

It might seem pretty intuitive, but Eisenhower’s principle shows us that it’s not. We are, as author Douglas Rushkoff claims, experiencing “present shock” – a condition in which “we live in a continuous, always-on” and lose our sense of long-term narrative and direction. Most of us frequently fall into the trap of believing that all urgent activities are also important. This can leave us in an endless cycle of constantly racing to do the “urgent” activities at the risk of neglecting our long-term goals which are crucial to our advancement. 

We might view it as another day lost but the consequences of this priority-blindness impact us and society as a whole. Lack of time management leaves us burnt out, stagnant and on a broader level, unable to fully contribute to dealing with the problems of our time. 

 

It’s time to set your priorities straight

 

Eisenhower’s Decision Matrix prompts us to prioritise our day in four quadrants. In the matrix, there are four blocks labeled as:

Priority 1: Urgent AND Important

These can be certain emails that either impact your job, highlight a potential business opportunity or anything that impacts your life in the long run and requires immediate action. Examples of these tasks can be attending to the illness of a close family member, a crisis at your children’s school or even submitting your tax returns.

It’s also important to note that some of these tasks (like filing your tax returns) can be made more efficient if you cut off the ugly demon of procrastination, and work in advance.  

Priority 2: Important but not urgent

These are tasks that don’t have a pressing deadline but are crucial to you achieving your personal goals. Whether it is school, work, or socially related, these are the tasks that require ongoing commitment and a long-term strategic approach. Such as weekly planning, exercising, going for regular check-ups or creating a budget/savings plan. These are the tasks we should aim to spend more time on as they contribute to our overall well being and that of society.

However, inefficient time management often takes away from our time to be fully present for these tasks – pushing them in the backburner. Hence we find ourselves in the unhealthy cycle of neglecting the most important parts of our lives under the guise of ‘dealing with urgent’ tasks first.

Tip: Managing your Outlook diary can also help you prioritise better. Read more about it here.

Priority 3: Urgent but not important

As the title suggests, these are tasks that don’t have an impending deadline and are also not important to our individual advancement. These can be phone calls, emails (realistically speaking, not every email needs an immediate response) requests from others or any other task that has more to do with those around us than ourselves or our immediate work. 

We often get stuck on these and it’s not hard guessing why. Helping those around us or extending ourselves beyond things that just matter to us makes us feel a sense of achievement, like we’ve played our part in impacting those around us. While this may be true and a worthy feeling, it’s important to strike a healthy balance between pressing tasks and those where those around us need our help. 

Priority 4: Neither urgent nor important 

This is usually the procrastinator’s achilles heel. These are those “lazing around” activities like watching TV, playing a game, spending time on social media, shopping sprees and more social and ‘fun’ stuff. If we all did a time audit on the amount of time we spend on these activities (unintentionally of course ) the results would send most of us into hiding.

While we’re not robots and definitely need some downtime, we also need to be conscious of striking a healthy balance. This helps us enjoy activities that help us unwind in a healthy way without being pulled back into the unhealthy cycle of anxiously racing to complete urgent and important tasks last minute. 

 

It’s all about balance


In our ‘always-on’ world, it’s important to be able to cut through the noise and clearly discern what’s important and what’s urgent. Challenge yourself to start plotting out your day in the quadrant method mentioned above. Get into the habit of asking yourself whether the task you are completing is important or are you just merely getting through it because it’s urgent? Investing your time on Priority 2 activities allows you to work ahead and properly plan for most of life’s changes which helps you eliminate most of the problems listed in Priority 1. Balance the requests of Priority 3 with your personal needs and enjoy the relaxation of Priority 4 – you’ve earned it!

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