In today’s fast paced world it’s critical for leaders distinguish between busy work and important work. I’m sure you’ve experienced days when you’ve been running around working hard, busy getting things done. Then at the end of the day it feels like you’ve worked hard, but accomplished little to achieve your goals. I’ve had this experience on too many occasions.
A leader who conquered busyness and as a result had a significant impact on the world was Dwight Eisenhower. Dwight Eisenhower was the 34th President of the United States. He served two terms between 1953 and 1961, he was also a five-star general in the United States Army during World War II and served as Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe. If that did not keep him busy enough, consider some of Eisenhower’s accomplishments:
- He kept America at peace even as he was confronted with a major Cold War crisis every year he was in office.
- He ended the Korean War.
- He balanced the budget, not just once, but three times.
- He sponsored and signed the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 and gave birth to America’s interstate highway system.
- He sponsored and signed the Civil Rights Bill of 1957.
Dwight Eisenhower was a very productive president during an extremely difficult political and economic period of history. Despite this he was able to accomplish a significant amount of work. In addition, Eisenhower was able sustain his high levels of productivity over a number of decades.
Eisenhower’s Insight into Productivity and Effectiveness
The secret to Eisenhower’s productivity was the way he managed his time. He was careful to arrange his time so that the most important work received his attention. He did this because he found that important matters were seldom urgent and that urgent work was rarely important. Eisenhower’s productivity was grounded in one simple, yet powerful insight.
“What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower
Eisenhower discovered that effective people spend most of their time working on important, rather than urgent work. He found that distinguishing between important and urgent work is essential for leaders seeking to achieve their goals. As such he always made decisions about what to work on based on two simple questions, “Is the work important?” and “Is the work urgent?”
Urgent work refers to those activities that require immediate action. Some of the characteristics of urgent work is as follows.
- Urgent work is focused on the short-term.
- Urgent work is focused on putting out fires.
- Urgent work is work that keeps us busy and makes us feel needed.
- Urgent work keep us you reactive mode, busy, defensive and narrowly focused.
- Urgent work leaves you drained and frustrated.
Most damaging of all is that urgent work is focused on achieving someone else’s goals.
The challenge that we all face is that we tend to focus on the short-term, living in the now and lose sight of our long-term vision and goals. When we lose touch with our goals, we struggle to make the distinction between what’s urgent versus what’s important. This happens because we mistake urgency for importance.
Important work is completely different. Important work refers to work that is important for you to achieve your goals in the long-term. Some of the characteristics of important work is as follows.
- Important work is focused on your long-term personal and professional goals.
- Important work is never urgent.
- Important work involves long-term thinking about the future and doing the hard work get you there.
When we mistake what’s urgent for what’s important we sacrifice our dreams and goals. Once we learn to identify which activities are urgent and which are important we’re able to overcome our natural tendency to focus on short-term busy work.
The Eisenhower Matrix
Based on his insight as to the difference between urgent and important work, Eisenhower created a matrix to help him prioritize. Know as the Eisenhower matrix, the matrix is a powerful tool to help keep focused on important work. Whilst the matrix was popularised by Steven Covey in his best-selling book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, Dwight Eisenhower used the matrix long before Covey wrote about it in his book.
The Eisenhower matrix, as illustrated above, consists of four quadrants. The matrix is used to help you think though your priorities and determine which of your tasks are important and which are urgent. The matrix helps you to remain focused those tasks that contribute to the achievement of your long-term goals and helps you make effective use for your time. Let’s explore each quadrant in more detail.
Quadrant 1: Important and Urgent Work
This is the quadrant that contains your highest priority task, those tasks that are urgent and important. These tasks are those that contribute to your long-term goals, but they need to be done immediately. Urgent and important work are typically tasks you’ve left to the last-minute or are unforeseen emergencies, for example:
- Deadlines for clients
- Tax deadlines
- Car crash
These tasks should be a top priority and therefore go to the top of your to do list.
Whilst you’ll never eliminate all your urgent and important work, you can significantly reduce their impact through careful planning and by avoiding procrastination.
Your goal should be to eliminate as many of your urgent and important tasks as possible. So instead of waiting for the last-minute to get these tasks done, schedule time in your calendar to work on deadline driven tasks.
If you find that you are overwhelmed with important and urgent activities take some time to explore which of them you could have foreseen. Then think about what you could do to plan ahead so these activities don’t become urgent again in the future.
Quadrant 2: Important and Not Urgent Work
This is where you want to spend most of your time. This is work that helps you achieve your personal and professional goals. Work in this quadrant are is that focused on your future, improving yourself, planning, building and strengthening relationships. This is the work that provides you with a sense of meaning and purpose. Important and not urgent work include things like:
- Strategic planning
- Goal setting
- Relationship building
Since this work is not urgent it’s easy to delay. Most often you will find yourself spending time on your urgent tasks. The problem with this approach is that if you’re spending your time on urgent tasks, you make little progress on your important tasks.
Whilst this is the most neglected quadrant, work in this quadrant that most critical for your success.
The challenge we have with work in this quadrant is that it lacks urgency. Because this work is not screaming for our attention, we delay. We focus on doing urgent work, we tell ourselves we will get to the important work once we’ve completed our urgent work. However what happens is that the urgent work piles up and so we never get to complete our important work. The bottom line is that you will always have too much urgent work to be done.
The solution to this dilemma is to schedule time for your important work, otherwise it will never get done. The secret to getting important work done is to schedule it in your calendar. Important work only gets done when you set a deadline and schedule a time to work on getting it done. Getting important work done demands you set a deadline.
Quadrant 3: Urgent and Not Important Work
Urgent and not important work includes those tasks that require our attention, but don’t help us achieve our goals. Mostly this work originates from other people. Typically these tasks are interruptions, focused on the priorities of others, for example:
- Phone calls, email and text messages you receive
- Unexpected interruptions from co-workers asking for a favour
Since much of this work is focused on helping others, you may feel that it’s all important. Urgent tasks are important to others, but are mostly not important for you. These tasks often result in busy work.
“Being busy is a form of laziness — lazy thinking and indiscriminate action.” – Tim Ferriss
Urgent work is not bad, however it needs to be balanced with your important work. If you spend too much time working on urgent tasks you’ll fail to make progress on your own goals. You’re pleasing others at the expense of your own happiness. The solution is for you to become more assertive, to politely say “no” to this work, declining requests and helping people to solve their own problems.
You need to make a point of making decisions concerning this work as soon as it arrives in your inbox. Wherever possible avoid accepting work, but rather help people find another way of getting the task done. As urgent work prevents you from achieving your goals.
Quadrant 4: Not Urgent / Not Important
This quadrant consists of work that doesn’t contribute to your goals and is not urgent. These tasks are really distractions that gobble up valuable time, preventing you from completing your important work. Examples of these tasks include:
- Watching T.V.
- Aimlessly browsing the internet
- Spending time on social media site
Your goal is to minimise the tasks in this quadrant. One way to reduce these kinds of activities is to develop a clear structure for your day focused on your most important work.
How to Use the Eisenhower Matrix
Whenever I feel I’ve been running around putting out one fire after another, I know I’ve fallen into the trap of reactive work. In times like these I pause and ask myself “what am I working to achieve?” and use the Eisenhower matrix as a tool to help me refocus.
Use the matrix by first listing, then categorising all your current and planned work into one of the four quadrants. Once completed use the following strategies to guide your actions for each of the tasks:
- Complete your important and urgent tasks immediately.
- Schedule time to work on your important, but not urgent tasks.
- Delegate or postpone your urgent, but not important tasks.
- Eliminate tasks that neither urgent nor important.
Your overall goal is to find ways to increase the amount of time you spend on your important work.
The Eisenhower matrix is a great tool to help you gain clarity as to what work should be your focus each week. When making a decision, stop and ask yourself, “Am I doing this task because it’s important or just because it’s urgent?”.