In 1954, in a speech to the World Council of Churches, former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower said: “I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.” This “Eisenhower Principle”, which divided tasks into four categories, (Important and Urgent; Important But Not Urgent; Not Important But Urgent; Not Important, Not Urgent) is said to be how he organized his workload and priorities – both during war and peace.
Eisenhower recognized that great time management means being effective as well as efficient. In other words, we must spend our time on things that are important, not just on things that are urgent. It’s important to understand the distinction:
Important tasks are things that contribute to our long-term mission, values, and goals, whether professional or personal. Sometimes important tasks are also urgent, but typically they’re not. When we focus on important activities we operate in a responsive mode, which helps us remain calm, rational, and open to new opportunities.
Urgent tasks demand immediate attention. These are the to-do’s that shout “Now!” Urgent tasks put us in a reactive mode, one often marked by a hurried and narrowly-focused mindset. They are often the ones we concentrate on because the consequences of not dealing with them are immediate. They have to be done, of course, but they are not the tasks which will bring us the greatest satisfaction in life.
When we know which tasks are important and which are urgent, we can better manage our time to do what’s essential for our success.
The Covey Time Management Matrix
Author Stephen Covey popularized Eisenhower’s system for personal and business use in his renowned 2004 book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which has sold over 15 million copies to date.
Covey’s Time Management Matrix is an extraordinarily efficient way of organizing your workday priorities. In fact, it’s a great way of organizing your everyday priorities too. As you can see from the grid below, it contains four quadrants organized by urgency and importance.
You’re free to adjust the size of each of these quadrants in relation to the others, but the overall size of the matrix remains constant as it represents the total time you have in any given day, week, month or even year.
Quadrant 1 tasks typically consist of crises, problems, or deadlines. Quadrant 2 tasks are typically centered around strengthening relationships, planning for the future, and improving yourself. Keeping in mind the distinction between urgent and important tasks, it’s easy to see that the tasks in quadrant two have the most priority for your company. Quadrant 3 tasks might include some meetings, interruptions, phone calls, and the like. Quadrant 4? That’s where “tasks” like watching TV, reading, and social media go (they aren’t urgent or important, but they’re essential to your happiness, and you need to set aside time for them.)
The Design Your Time Matrix
But what if your specific needs don’t quite fit the Covey Matrix? What if you could design your time instead of managing it? This is the idea Thomas Davies, a director of Google for Work, came up with.
You still have to break everything into quadrants. But Davies proposes labeling them based on your personal everyday tasks and responsibilities.
“Take a look at your calendar and review the meetings you attended in the last couple of weeks. Review your recent to-do lists and big projects from the past three months. Then group all those recent and semi-recent tasks, big and small, into the four most obvious categories… When you do this, you’ll have a high-level view of all the things you could possibly spend your time on, which makes it easier to plan and balance all your day-to-day and week-to-week responsibilities.”
Davies’ four urgent/important quadrants turned out to be these:
· People development (managing his teams, coaching, mentoring)
· Business operations (data analysis, running sales meetings)
· Transactional tasks (one-off things like responding to an email or reviewing a budget)
· Representative tasks (serving as a “face” for the business, like having drinks with customers or speaking at conferences)
Davies says, “It isn’t about segmenting your day into neat 25% chunks – most jobs are too unpredictable for that. Instead, the key to using them effectively is to be mindful that if you focus on business impact and personal enjoyment, you can achieve great things while maintaining balance: You can design what you do, rather than just do what you need to.”
Davies says his concept lets you prioritize doing the things you actually love.
“I’m organized, I’m energized, and I’m ultimately more efficient. That way, I can spend more time with my family–the “fifth quadrant” that I try to keep the other four in balance for.”