You should focus on work that matters: The Eisenhower matrix is how

Dwight D. Eisenhower made plenty of tough decisions in his career. As a two-term US president, a five-star World War II general, and the first Supreme Commander of NATO, Ike spent his days prioritizing ruthlessly and acting quickly. The secret behind his cut-to-the-chase efficiency? The Eisenhower matrix, a system that prioritized problems according to two key factors: importance and urgency.

You may not be storming the beaches of Normandy, but the Eisenhower matrix—and the principle of important vs. urgent—can be a powerful tool for boosting your effectiveness at work. Popularized by Stephen Covey in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, this time management matrix separates to-do’s into four quadrants:

Plotting your tasks and projects within this matrix can take your daily to-do list to the next level. Rather than a broad inventory of tasks, it’s a battle plan for prioritizing your most valuable work.

Why you should use it

It prevents emergency thinking. “Putting out fires” may sound heroic, but spending your day responding to the latest crisis is a recipe for burnout and dissatisfaction. By establishing space for non-urgent yet vital tasks, the time management matrix prevents so-called emergencies from dominating your to-do list.

It helps you delegate and eliminate. Time-sensitive yet nonessential tasks in Quadrant 3 are prime candidates for delegation or trimming. Administrative duties, routine assignments, and far too many emails and meetings fall into this category. As for Quadrant 4 items that are neither urgent nor important—think web surfing or obsessively checking Facebook—these should be considered your “do not do” list.

It focuses your efforts. Perhaps the most important of Covey’s ideas is “first things first”—the principal that the majority of your time should be devoted to important yet non-urgent projects. The equation is simple: The more effort spent planning and preparing in Quadrant 2, the fewer crises and must-do’s will pop up in Quadrant 1. A single client lunch can head off multiple future misunderstandings; one new organizational system can remedy all those last-minute searches for files.

How to get started

  1. Create your matrix. You can choose to enter tasks into an app, print out a template, or simply draw your own. All you need is a square divided into four quadrants: the x axis separates Important (top) and Not Important (bottom); the y axis separates Urgent (left) and Not Urgent (right).
  2. Sort your to-do’s. Once you’ve got your quadrants set, sit down with your existing to-do list and determine which items go where. If you have trouble differentiating between urgent and important tasks, keep in mind that urgent tasks demand your immediate attention; important tasks contribute to your long-term goals or values.
  3. Reflect on the results. Because it’s so visual, the urgent-important matrix often illuminates issues or imbalances in your to-do strategy. The most common pitfall: A list filled with urgent items—a sign that you’re reacting to the demands of others rather than proactively setting your own priorities.
  4. Schedule the important stuff. If important yet non-urgent projects deliver the most value, why is it so hard to prioritize them? Often these types of tasks—like maintaining relationships or developing new products—lack a clear timeline. To prevent these to-do’s from falling by the wayside, create firm deadlines for Quadrant 2 duties sand schedule significant blocks of time to complete them. Build in reminders and rewards—anything to keep you accountable and focused on long-term results.

How to make it a routine

The urgent-important matrix isn’t designed to be a one-time exercise. It’s most effective as a lifelong habit, helping you manage time and prioritize on a daily basis.

So how do you make it a regular part of your workday? Studies on goal achievement show that linking a new habit to a specific time or action helps trigger and cement the habit. Psychologists call this an implementation intention or if-then plan: “If X happens, then I do Y.”

Look at your work routine and decide which recurring activities could function as cues to use the urgent-important matrix. One ideal trigger: Checking your email or phone messages. Each incoming assignment, meeting, or request for assistance can be categorized by quadrant as you go, making it easier to spot low-value tasks and delegate or eliminate, right off the bat.

The more you practice sorting tasks by importance and urgency—and then focusing on the high-value to-do’s—the more prioritization becomes second nature. In time, you’ll develop a mental matrix that automatically categorizes tasks as either worthy of your time or irrelevant. Like a five-star general, you’ll show up at work focused, efficient, and ready to take action.

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