It is worth revisiting the Eisenhower Matrix. This one best practice can be a multi-million dollar improvement for many enterprises. Stephen Covey made it even more mainstream in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. It was actually used by U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower long before Covey made it famous.
“What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.” ~ Dwight D. Eisenhower
Eisenhower was renown for delegating as many of his tasks as he could, and he often assessed urgency and importance before making decisions. I have seen many variations of the Eisenhower Matrix. So in full disclosure, this is how I have been taught, used and taught others on the matrix. It may not be the same as other capable coaches and teachers. So this is my take, as well as most of my mentors over time.
Using a simple grid, The Eisenhower Matrix defines tasks according to their importance and urgency:
Quadrant 1 – Crises – Urgent and Important
Quadrant 2 – Goals and Planning – Not Urgent and Important
Quadrant 3 – Interruptions – Urgent and Not Important
Quadrant 4 – Distractions – Not Urgent and Not Important
Urgent has to be reprogrammed in our culture as not necessarily something we stop to do. Maybe we will. Maybe we will not. The real fix is to spend more time in Quadrant Two.
Let’s assess Important and Urgent, and the Matrix:
- Urgent Tasks: These cause us to react, interrupt us, and displace the priority work we are doing to stop and handle the urgent matter. These can be fire drills. They can be driven by poor planning by you or someone with whom you work.
- Important Tasks: These are solid goals, rocks – the things we need to do to accomplish our overall mission or goals. Planning, organization, and initiative are usually required to accomplish these. They have a time window in which we need to act before they become urgent.
- Quadrant 1 – Urgent and Important Tasks (Crisis):
Tasks that fall into Quadrant 1 include deadlines, urgent meetings, pressing problems, crises and fire-fighting. Sometimes in a fix up scenario, we inherit procrastinated yet important initiatives. It is a catch-22. So, in some scenarios we just need to hunker down and get these done. In other scenarios it may be smarter to keep as few Quadrant 1 tasks as possible and eliminate them. If you spend too much of your time in this quadrant, you are reactive, not proactive, and you are relegated to a trouble shooter. If we never find time to work on longer-term plans, we will be stuck in Quadrant 1. Quadrant 1 issues can be anything from an overdue project to customer complaints, a broken element of the business like a process, people, or an angry client. It can even be a physical ailment that you have neglected and needs to now be urgently dealt with.
- The Impact on us: Stress and burnout. Overwhelm and out of control. These are the symptoms of living in this quadrant.
- What is the Best Practice? Urgent has to be reprogrammed in our culture as not necessarily something we stop to do. Maybe we will. Maybe we will not. The real fix is to spend more time in Quadrant Two. In order to get there, we must spend more time prioritizing, planning, and delegating. We need to brainstorm ways to schedule chunks of time for important tasks.
- Quadrant 2 – Not Urgent and Important Tasks (Goals and Planning):
This is where you want to spend most of your time. Quadrant 2 allows you to work on something important and have the time to do it properly. This will help you produce the highest quality, most efficient work. Quadrant 2 keeps you on top of your important things, making progress, focusing diligently to prevent important items from being delayed and becoming urgent. This is your Power and Success quadrant! Some call it the big picture quadrant. Focusing on these tasks lead us towards our big goals, rocks, and big projects. Quadrant 2 tasks may include planning, relationship and team-building, issue prevention and risk-assessment. It includes vacation, healthy habits, taking family time, time for strategic thinking, and recreational activities that help us maintain balance in our lives. Booking an electrician before a crisis, or a well-planned dentist or doctor appointment are good examples.
- The Impact on us: When we spend a lot of time in this quadrant we feel calmer and more control. We feel successful. We are proactive and prioritized dealing with the most important issues before they become a crisis. We are likely to have solid support from others. All of this means fewer crises to manage later which is good for our team, our culture, and the health and success of the organization.
- What is the Best Practice? Maximize the time spent in Quadrant 2. Having a solid meeting cadence and agenda like is detailed in EOS (Entrepreneurial Operating System) naturally focuses the entire team on rocks and holds each other accountable in a weekly cadence. EOS has healthy planning cycles quarterly where important items (rocks) are agreed upon and accountability is assigned. We must set specific time aside to plan, prepare for problems, and build relationships. Your health at work, home, mentally and physically live in Quadrant 2. Make it priority. Planning and preparing will save us time and effort in the long run. We have to take some time away from “doing” to have time for preparing and planning. So this takes new habits.
If we live in Quadrant 3 we will feel unproductive, incomplete, and like we are not living up to our dreams and potential. This is also where people rake their plates off on us. It is where we may feel oppressed by other people’s problems and emergencies, leaving us feeling unpleasant, stuck, frustrated and stressed.
- Quadrant 3 – Urgent and Not Important Tasks (Interruptions):
We want to minimize the tasks we have in this quadrant. We are busy and not productive in Quadrant 3. These tasks are often mistaken to be important, but they are usually busywork. These tasks are usually demands originated by team members or even family members. You need to scrutinize and question them, and then help those who made the demands re-assess the importance and assignment of these tasks. As leaders we have to lead our direct reports to either stop doing these items or maybe delegate them. It’s important to make a decision about these tasks as soon as you’re confronted with them. If you can say no to these tasks when they are assigned to you, then do it. Tasks or activities in this quadrant interrupt or take us away from our important tasks. This could be anything from a visionary boss who is in creative mode and assigns unimportant and urgent tasks to us. It includes meetings to which you are invited that are not priority and you should say no. It can also include co-workers stopping by for a chat (drive-by meetings), and obsessive checking of email/social media. It also includes answering the phone even when it is not a priority person calling.
- The Impact on us: We will feel unproductive, incomplete, and like we are not living up to our dreams and potential. This is also where people rake their plates off on us. It is where we may feel oppressed by other people’s problems and emergencies, leaving us feeling unpleasant, stuck, frustrated and stressed.
- What is the Best Practice? Focus on your most important and not urgent tasks first. Minimize the time you spend or get dragged by others into Quadrant 3. Use the power of “no!” Say no. Question Why? Why? Why? Look to deflect getting this monkey on your back. Delegate other people’s interruptions. Some people recommend using an interruption log to track who and how often people are dragging us into Quadrant 3. This helps identify patterns, understand the source of their interruptions and come up with an action plan to stop it.
- Quadrant 4 – Not Urgent and Not Important Tasks (Distractions):
Time spent in Quadrant 4 are distractions from the tasks at hand. In reality, Quadrant 4 reflects habits that provide comfort, and a refuge from
being disciplined and rigorous with our time management. They can range from habitual and low priority emails or phone calls. Personal calls and social media usage are big ones.
- The Impact on us: These distractions lead to us being late, failing to meet deadlines and commitments/finishing projects or tasks on time, and can leave us tired, stressed and ineffective. Television programs and internet surfing at home may reside in Quadrant 4. At an extreme, too much time spent in this quadrant can lead to depression, feeling like a failure, and may even get us fired.
- What is the Best Practice? Look to replace Quadrant 4 time with the healthier options available in Quadrant 2. These can include exercise, planning, dreaming, spending quality time with friends, co-workers and family. Realize that Quadrant 4 is habitual and not so much task oriented. So decide to break some bad habits and do something healthier, more proactive, and more giving to others. It may be helpful for us to write a list of all distractions and how long we spend on each one, keeping track of this for one week. I have also read about making a “Not To-Do List” where we write down a list of things not to do.
In closing, I was introduced to the Urgent versus Important Matrix in Stephen Covey’s book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. It really resonated with me as a young manager and leader. I was struggling with being overwhelmed, bogged down, and missing big deliverables. By applying as much as I could from Covey’s book, I became much more effective. This one wisdom and best practice catapulted me as a leader and manager because I was able to help my teams get into Quadrant 2. We held each other accountable. We inspired and encouraged each other to minimize Quadrants 3 and 4, not live in Quadrant 1, and to then get ourselves positioned in Quadrant 2. We learned to say “no” and delegate. We began to value health, hobbies, and time off as effective work tools. We encouraged each other to spend quality time with family, friends and take healthy vacations. We valued thinking. I have said (tongue in cheek) before, “Thinking is not a stupid persons game.” We started getting to meetings on time. It was transformational. We did hit a ceiling, though. I seemed to be stuck at the top with my direct reports at the senior leadership table. We were effective at this and other best practices. We were not good, yet, at driving them down and empowering the entire company with them. We tried, but we were mediocre at it. How can we get best practices top-down and bottom-up? EOS! Once I found EOS, we took it to another level because the entire system enables vision, traction and healthy across the entire enterprise, top-down and bottom-up.
It is well worth training and developing our leaders on this best practice. Combined with EOS it is powerful. It has been a very successful time management and growth engine for my teams for years.
Until next week, cheers!