“What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.” Dwight D. Eisenhower
At some point in our lives, we have all grappled with how to get everything done without letting things fall through the cracks. We have all likely experienced the anxiety of having a critical project to do and too little time or resources to complete it. In addition, there always seems to be distractions to compound the problem.
Good management of your life, time, and self depends on being both efficient and effective while choosing the right things to do and doing them well. In his book, The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, Steven Covey suggests using the Urgent/Important Matrix, based on Eisenhower’s principle, to help sort through the many activities of your life. In this activity, you will learn how to use the matrix so you can improve the effectiveness of your decision-making.
The Urgent/Important Matrix (The Eisenhower Principle)
- Urgent activities demand immediate attention and are often associated with the achievement of someone else's goals.
- Important activities have an outcome that leads to the achievement of your own goals.
Too often, we focus on urgent activities because they create the most immediate stress for us. Someone demands that we get something done in a given time. The consequences of not dealing with these urgent tasks are immediate. Unfortunately, the consequences for not dealing with important tasks, though not as immediate, may have a more lasting impact on your success.
The matrix is broken into four quadrants as noted below.
Urgent and Important
Ideally, this quadrant only contains those items that you could not foresee rather than obligations that were left until the last minute. If you manage your matrix of to-dos well, you will be able to shuffle your schedule to take care of these unexpected things without creating further chaos.
Urgent and Not Important
These can be last minute requests for your time that you automatically say yes to with the best intentions. However, they can halt your progress toward meeting your goals or completing important tasks on time.
Before you say yes, consider whether you can reschedule other demands without creating crises for yourself. Ask yourself if the urgent request needs your personal attention or whether it can be delegated. If it needs your attention, identify and offer the time that works best in your schedule. This allows you to use your optimum times for getting critical tasks done. Consider putting your phone on “do not disturb” or making yourself unavailable during peak concentration hours.
Not Urgent, but Important
This is where you should focus your time and energy. These activities fulfill needs related to your personal and professional goals and aspirations. Think about the best time of day for completing these important tasks. Consider when you will have the greatest focus and mental clarity and block that time for these important undertakings. Be realistic about how long it takes to complete these tasks at the level of excellence that represents your best. Planning well in this quadrant and avoiding procrastination will lessen unnecessary stress and help support more rapid achievement of your goals.
Not Urgent and Not Important
These activities are most often distractions – a television show, a friend unexpectedly offering you tickets to a show, a party right before finals, or any other activity that you know is just a diversion. We all need a break now and then, and it is important to schedule some of these types of activities in the Important/Not Urgent quadrant. If you schedule it, you will be clearer about boundaries – especially when offered an opportunity to escape when there is something important you should do instead.
Download a blank matrix below to use for an assessment of your own tasks:
Matrix Activity and Self Reflection
Follow the steps below to prioritize your time and activities.
- Make a list of all the items on your to-do list.
- Make a list of other activities that require your time. Think about all of your responsibilities and life goals.
- Map the items from these lists into the blank matrix below.
Focus on the items in the “Not Urgent but Important” quadrant to keep you on track and help you fulfill your goals consistently and reliably. Use this matrix repeatedly.