"I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent."
That's what the 34th U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower said. The guy certainly faced his share of problems, both as president and in his prior jobs as Allied Forces Supreme Commander in World War II, and the first Supreme Commander of NATO.
The Eisenhower Decision Matrix, or Eisenhower Matrix, was popularized by Stephen Covey's best-selling book, "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People," and has become a widely used framework.
Here's how it works. You use a four-quadrant grid to rank tasks/decisions on two key characteristics:
- The importance of the task to the overall success of the mission
- The urgency of the task
Urgent and important
Do it first
Important but not urgent
Do it later
Not important or urgent
Don’t do it
Urgent but not important
Place your tasks in the quadrants and tackle them as follows:
- Important/Urgent quadrant tasks get done immediately and by you, e.g., crises, deadlines, mission-critical problems.
- Important/Not Urgent quadrant tasks get scheduled and get done by you, e.g., planning, training, non-urgent communication.
- Urgent/Not Important quadrant tasks get delegated to someone else, e.g., meetings to schedule, calls to make, organizational work.
- Unimportant/Not Urgent quadrant tasks are dropped, e.g., time-wasters and distractions.
The beauty of the matrix is that it applies to just about any role in any business. For busy entrepreneurs, the matrix can be an invaluable tool to remain focused on what matters most.
Let's break down the categories further with some examples of what might fall into each quadrant.
Urgent and Important—Do it First
These are "house on fire" tasks that are usually unplanned emergencies or time-bound events and need to be handled by the business's leader. A rule of thumb is to rank tasks in this quadrant that face hard deadlines and are mission-critical. Examples include:
- Closing a key account
- A key account at risk
- A product or system failure
Important but Not Urgent—Do it Later
These are mission-critical issues but don't need immediate attention and still need to be performed by you. You can control the timing. Examples include:
- Planning for the next quarter
- Key account reviews
- Technology or infrastructure upgrades
Urgent but Not Important—Delegate It
These are tasks that pop up and demand immediate attention, just not by you, and should get delegated to someone else. Example include:
- Meeting requests
- Responding to emails
- Following up on sales leads
Not Urgent or Important—Don't Do It
These are tasks you shouldn't do at all. They can range from distractions to bad habits. Examples include:
- Surfing the web
- Playing video games
- Checking personal social media
Keep reading: How to Use the Iceberg Method to Save Time
Putting it All Together
Like any productivity or time-management framework, the Eisenhower Matrix works best when used consistently and frequently. Best practices include:
- Keep the list fresh. Placing tasks in the quadrants can free your mind and help you stay focused on what matters most.
- Limit the lists. Too many tasks in each quadrant can have the opposite effect of helping you manage time. If you have more than eight items in each quadrant, you might need more help! Do one task at a time. Clear out your Urgent and Important quadrant first.
- Use one matrix for personal and business tasks. No, you shouldn't spend hours on social media at work. On the other hand, you will need breaks for things like exercise and maybe even some time for a little Instagram. Just put them where they belong.
If you find yourself lost in the "urgent but no important" category, you're not alone. It can be challenging to figure out who and how to delegate those tasks. If you run a lean organization, you probably don't have people with extra time on their hands on your team. Plus, if you're used to doing some things yourself, old habits can be hard to change.
Virtual Assistant to the Rescue
A virtual assistant can be a convenient, efficient way to take care of that bottom-right quadrant. More and more busy executives turn to this solution—a kind of pay-as-you-go method of delegating the urgent but not important work that needs to get done without adding a full-time employee. A virtual assistant can manage your email inbox, schedule meetings, follow up on phone calls, and follow up on sales leads by email and phone. Managed virtual assistant firms can make sure you get a dynamite assistant without adding management overhead.
You might not be leading an army into war, but it can feel like it sometimes. Ike (Eisenhower's nickname) can help you win your business battles by clarifying what you should and shouldn't be doing yourself.
To learn more about how a virtual assistant can give you more leverage and boost your productivity, download our guide to working with a Prialto VA.
About the Author: Bill is Prialto's senior content marketing manager and writes about the future of work and how businesses can be more productive and successful. His work has appeared in the World Economic Forum Agenda blog and CIO magazine.