How the Eisenhower Matrix helped me get my most important work done

About two years ago I was working on a project with a client from Sweden. We were putting together a strategy for improving sales of their various software products for SME’s.

Stop doing more things

One of our insights was to provide more educational content specifically designed for small business owners.

Since one of the main products in the portfolio was a time management application, it seemed logical to include productivity as a topic for content creation.

Right after one of my team members made the suggestion, our client stopped the meeting to remind us that we’re not allowed to use the word productivity. That seemed odd so I asked her why.

It turns out that they had conducted market research that highlighted that their customers saw productivity as something negative.

Productivity, it seems was taken as a habit of getting more things done. In the research, people mentioned that they preferred being effective or getting the right things done instead.

As they say, quality over quantity.

Simple as it was the message stuck with me.

The two types of work

There are two types of work that we do in a day. The first type is the most urgent work and the other is the most important.

Most days we don’t do much other than our most urgent work and there’s an extremely good reason for that.

Our most urgent work by nature is time-sensitive and necessary. It’s what get’s us through the day and keeps us afloat.

The problem is that if that’s all we manage to do in a day, week, month or a year then we never really end up getting around to doing our most important work.

Now that’s a big problem!

Our most important work such as working on a strategic initiative or taking time to meet a customer face-to-face are the types of activities that may not be too urgent but they’re necessary for our future growth.

Our most important work is often the source of innovation and discovery. We simply can’t afford to compromise on it.

The Whirlwind

The worst enemy of getting your most important work done is the Whirlwind. It’s what happens when you get too caught up in managing your daily to-do list.

The more you give in to your whirlwind the further away it will take you from your most important work.

Dealing with your whirlwind isn’t easy. It takes practice and a lot of self-discipline but it can be done.

No one ever finds time. You make time

I started my career in consulting at a marketing agency.

Life at an agency can be very fulfilling, both professionally and personally.

But before you can get to any of that you need to find the right balance between working on the things that help you improve your skills and your business without compromising on the responsibilities you have towards your clients.

When you’re stuck in a Whirlwind, there’s no way you can make time for anything unless you change the way you work.

Which leads me to this TED Talk by Laura Vanderkam.

Her message is simple but thought-provoking. This is what she said

no one can never find time for anything. Unless we make time we can never get around to doing our most important work.

This is as good a place as any to recall the preferences of my client’s Swedish customers. Quality over quantity.

The right tool for the job

For an idea to really take hold it needs to have an authentic purpose and rigorous logic.

My purpose was clear – stop making avoidable mistakes and the idea of actively making time for our most important work made more sense than anything else.

Old habits are hard to break – especially when you’re a borderline workaholic. I knew I needed a tool and I was overjoyed when I finally found one.

The Eisenhower Matrix.

The Eisenhower Matrix

I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.

Dwight D. Eisenhower

The Eisenhower Matrix, also known as the Urgent/Important Principle is known to have been the secret behind US President Eisenhower’s exceptional time management skills.

It’s a brilliantly simple tool specifically designed to help you distinguish between your most urgent and most important work.

Using the Eisenhower Matrix

The Eisenhower Matrix

The Eisenhower Matrix has two scales;

  • Important
  • Urgent

Using the two scales you can separate your activities into 4 categories.

  1. Important, but not urgent
  2. Urgent and important
  3. Not important, not urgent
  4. Urgent but not important

Here’s how you should use these categories.

Important but not urgent

Sort the activities into this category that lead you towards your important objectives. These tasks are often strategically important but not very time-sensitive. It’s important that you remember to schedule enough time aside for them.

Urgent and important

Sort activities into this category that are both highly important and time-sensitive. Prioritise these tasks and get them done first.

Not important, not urgent

Urgency aside, how important a task usually depends on what your responsibilities are. An unimportant task for you might be important for someone else in your team depending on their responsibilities.

One good way to evaluate an activity is by comparing it to your OKRs. Tasks that score low on your urgent/important scale just be placed on the back burner or eliminated altogether.

Urgent but not important

This is your classic everyday to-do list. The best way to manage these tasks is through delegation. Create relevant roles and share responsibilities within your team to effectively manage these tasks.

Your responsibility as a leader is to ensure that people are aware of their responsibilities and able to perform them. Mismanagement of this type of task often results in getting carried away by your whirlwind.

My experience using the matrix

I’ve been using this worksheet I created in Google Sheets following the Eisenhower Matrix. I also tried Trello. While taking notes and sharing tasks was easier in Trello, I stuck to the worksheet because it offered better analytics.

Using the matrix I’ve been able to get more important things done during a week than I ever did without it. Here’s how I use my worksheet.

Every Monday morning I start my day at 6.30 AM. Armed with a cup of coffee I go through my Backlog. I take items from my backlog and place them in one of the 4 categories. This usually takes about an hour.

My job involves meeting people so I start by making sure that I’ve scheduled enough time for every ‘Important, but not urgent tasks first. During a day I aim to accomplish between 3 – 5 tasks from the ‘Urgent and Important’ category.

I also use colour coding to indicate when a task is being delayed or approaching within the next couple of days. Finally, my favourite feature is the bar chart that gives me a summary of how I have been spending my time during each week.

I’ve been using The Eisenhower Matrix for over a year now and I couldn’t be happier! Managing my time using the matrix has allowed me to improve the way I use OKRs.

For that alone, I’ve become a big fan of the Eisenhower Matrix.

👉 PS. Thanks for reading. Have a friend who'd love this?