Jun 07, 2022
Table of contents:
Choosing the right thing to work on is a very difficult problem. Evaluating the nuance of every task you’ve got on your to-do list is cognitively exhausting.
The problem is compounded when we are instinctively drawn to tasks with certain characteristic profiles, even if completing those tasks will not be beneficial to our longer term goals. This distinction can be seen in the choice between urgent and important tasks.
Before we get too far into this article, I want to first define what I mean by urgency and importance. These terms are quite loaded in the world of productivity, and so it’s best to define them upfront so we’re on the same page.
Urgent tasks have deadlines and clear consequences for not meeting those deadlines. For example if you don’t pay your credit card bill by the due date, you will pay interest on the balance you owe.
Important tasks contribute towards your longer term goals, but it’s often difficult to see the benefit of working on those types of tasks day-to-day. For example, if you are learning to play piano, your daily practice will show slow and steady consistent progress, but it’s over a much longer time horizon when you achieve your goal of becoming a maestro.
Understanding the difference between urgency and importance will have a big impact on your productivity once you can recognise how each of your tasks fall into these buckets.
For example, do you ever feel like you are really busy, rushing around to hit deadlines, but you never feel like you are really making progress towards your longer term goals and your work isn’t making the impact you were hoping for?
Whenever you have a task with an approaching due date, it can be tempting to focus all of your energy on getting it finished. It’s only natural to want to tackle short-term responsibilities, particularly if you’re already feeling stressed about how much you have to do.
But this can lead to a situation where you are frantically completing all of your short-term tasks whilst neglecting investing your time and effort into moving closer to your longer term goals. If you spend too much of your energy on short-term goals, you will always feel like you are just spinning your wheels.
Understanding the distinction between urgency and importance can help you choose a better, more sustainable path towards striking a balance between your short and long-term objectives. This allows you to manage your work more effectively because you know where you should be spending your time, what tasks you can delegate, or remove from your to-do list altogether.
Now that we have a shared definition of urgency and importance, we can look at how we can use those definitions to plot our tasks on a 2x2 matrix.
This 2x2 productivity matrix is known as the Eisenhower Matrix after it was referenced by the 34th president of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower when he quoted an unnamed university professor in a speech he gave in 1954, “I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent”.
Fundamentally, the Eisenhower Matrix is a simple way to visualise and prioritise your tasks. It helps you understand where you should be spending your time and energy, and it helps you to stop falling into the trap of spending too much time on short-term priorities to the detriment of your longer-term objectives. Finally the Eisenhower Matrix also makes it a lot easier to understand when you should delegate tasks and when removing certain tasks from your to-do list altogether makes sense.
Let’s take a look at each section of the Eisenhower Matrix.
In the top left of the Eisenhower matrix are tasks that are both important and urgent. These tasks have a deadline and clear consequences of not completing them, but they also contribute to your longer term goals.
For example, “design the new marketing website by Q3’’ is an example of a task that would fit into this quadrant. The task has a clear deadline, but designing the new marketing website is an important task that moves a strategic initiative forward.
Tasks that fall into this section of the Eisenhower Matrix, are the things that you should be spending the majority of your time, energy, and focus on.
Next, we have tasks that are important, but not urgent. These tasks contribute towards your longer term goals, but they don’t have a deadline or any meaningful consequences for not completing the task by a set date.
For example, practising a sales or investor pitch would be a task that might fall into this category. Practising a pitch will improve your ability to deliver the pitch in the longer-term, but you haven’t set a clear deadline for being able to deliver the pitch at a required level by a certain date.
For these types of tasks, you need to schedule time to do them otherwise you run the risk of not getting to it. Important but not urgent tasks are typically those that end up falling off your to-do list during the stresses of your day-to-day work, but doing so will have consequences further down the line.
Next, we have tasks that are urgent, but not important. These are tasks that have to be completed by a set deadline, but they do not contribute towards your longer-term goals.
For example, filing your tax return is something that you absolutely have to do, but it won’t move you closer to your longer term objective of running a successful business.
As these types of tasks are not important to your longer term goals, but they absolutely do have to be completed by a set deadline, they are usually very good candidates for delegating to someone else.
Finally we have tasks that are not urgent and not important. These are tasks that don’t have a deadline and there are no consequences for not doing them. These types of tasks also don’t move you closer to your longer term goals.
For example, this could be browsing twitter, or watching a TV show.
If you’ve got stuff like this on your to-do list, but you’re feeling overwhelmed by the number of things you need to do, these types of tasks would be the best candidate for just deleting without worrying about it.
However with that being said. Tasks in this quadrant could be considered something you might want to do when you are relaxing or wanting to restore energy, so you may want to fit them in when you have spare time. It’s really about finding a balance. Obviously if you are only picking tasks from this quadrant to work on, you’re not really being productive!