After repeatedly running into the exact same problems and watching us slowly falling behind schedule on our strategic ambitions. We needed to break the pattern without wasting anymore time.
This is a story of how a chance conversation with a client and a TED Talk lead me to discover the Eisenhower Matrix. I’ve been using it for over a year now and it’s been the most effective tool for managing my urgent tasks without failing to make time for our most important work.
This article also includes a link to my worksheet based on the Eisenhower Matrix.
Stop doing more things
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.
One of our insights was pointing towards providing more educational content specifically designed for small business owners.
Since one of the main products in the portfolio offered time management solution, it seemed logical to include productivity as a topic for content creation. I remember my client stopping the brief and telling us that we can’t use the term productivity anywhere in our content.
After the briefing when I got the chance to ask her more about her comment. She told me that through a survey they had learnt that their customers saw productivity as getting more things done while being effective to them meant getting more of the the right things done. They simply appreciated being effective far more than just being productive.
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 drawback is that if that’s all we do then we never end up having time to do 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 are certainly 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 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 into 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 will quickly teach you either you figure out how to find the right balance between working on things that help us improve our skills and our business without compromising on the responsibilities we have towards our clients or you fall behind and wait for someone to whisk your client away.
Besides a few exceptions, I haven’t come across many agencies that are good at striking that balance and we were no different. As a leader, whirlwind or not, it’s up to you to take action before you start loosing your best people.
There was no way we were going to make time for anything unless we changed the way we worked.
Around that same time I came across this TED Talk by Laura Vanderkam. Her message was simple and though provoking – no one can never find time for anything. Unless we make time we can never get around to doing our most important work.
It also reminded me that perhaps trying to be productive, which we were really good at, may actually be a problem.
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.
Starting with myself, I knee I needed an aid to replace my old habit of being productive with new habits that made me effective instead.
That aid for me is 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 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 has two scales;
Using the two scales you can separate your activities into 4 categories.
- Important, but not urgent
- Urgent and important
- Not important, not urgent
- 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 is 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 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 ensuring that people are aware of their responsibilities and able to perform them. Mismanagement of this type of tasks often results into 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.
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