When you’re faced with a ton of tasks, how do you decide what to tackle first? Do you give your attention to the most urgent item on the list first or do you choose the task that brings you closer to your long-term goals?
You get another ping in your email inbox.
You get another ring on your phone.
Your mother just asked you to help with a chore.
Your boss just asked for the final draft of the project in two days’ time.
What’s important? What needs to be taken care of now vs. later?
We generally like feeling busy and energetic. Understandable. Our brain produces dopamine and that makes us feel good, and crossing things off a to-do list is one of the most amazing feelings in the world.
Do you ever feel like you’re spending the bulk of your day doing tasks that can’t seem to stop or slow down, and before you know it, it’s already 10pm, you realize you spent the day on trivial matters, and now you’re out of energy to work on the big goals you have that would get you closer to your vision for your life?
Former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower once said: “I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”
This formed the basis of the Eisenhower Matrix, which was popularized by Stephen Covey’s book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” (great read, by the way), a concept that everyone can use to better organize their time.
So what’s the distinction between urgent and important?
These are items that demand your immediate attention and are screaming at us to get done “now!” These could be daily to-do’s, last-minute obligations, and/or critical crises you need to help put out.
These are tasks that contribute to your long-term goals, mission, and values which could include staying fit, achieving financial freedom, and/or advancing your career.
Here’s an example of the time management/decision matrix.
Quadrant 1 is urgent & important (things to do).
These tasks require our immediate attention and they also work towards fulfilling our long-term goals and missions in life. They’re generally unforeseen events/pressing problems and to avoid serious consequences, we generally deal with them right away. Examples of this could be a final paper deadline, a family member in the emergency room, and/or finishing a client project.
Quadrant 2 is not urgent, but important (things to schedule).
These activities don’t have a pressing deadline so you might put them off for a while. Ideally, this is the quadrant where you spend most of your time working on strategic, high-impact tasks that help you achieve your important personal, school, and work goals and help you fulfill your overall mission. These could include exercising, weekly planning, developing a new habit, family time, journaling, taking a class to improve a skill, meditating, and/or date night with a partner.
Quadrant 3 is urgent, but unimportant (things to delegate).
This quadrant keeps you constantly busy, but doesn’t quite move you forward. Another thing to note is that busy does not equate to important or productive (but that could be another post in itself). Quadrant 3 tasks potentially distract you from your key goals (other people’s queries, some meetings, some calls, some text messages, and some emails) . As Eisenhower put it, “what is urgent is seldom important.” It might not be possible to avoid these issues entirely, so the best way to go about these tasks is to try to delegate or allocate a specific range of time to get things done like allotting yourself an hour to answer some emails in your inbox.
Quadrant 4 is unimportant & not urgent (things to delete).
This is probably known as the procrastination quadrant. These aren’t pressing nor do they help you achieve long-term goals. They’re primarily distractions like watching a ton of TV, mindlessly surfing the web, playing video games, scrolling through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or shopping sprees online when you’re supposed to be working. We all deserve a good break here and there, but beware of how easily this quadrant can consume your entire day!
Deep down, we all know that time is the scarcest resource–we can’t get it back, but sometimes we let the noise get to us.
We all have the same amount of hours in a day, but we differ in how we use it.
Being productive doesn’t mean squeezing in a million of tasks into your day. Focus on 1-3 things that are important and work on that.
At the same time, everyone’s idea of productive may differ and you don’t need to compare yourself to anyone else. As long as you’re happy with how you use your time, go you–good for you. No need to drag someone else down or pressure them into having to be “productive” 100% of the time. If playing video games for two hours per day makes you more creative, happy, and accomplished, then do it.
If you’re not happy with how you use your time, and you have time to complain, dwell on the past, and feel like crap after scrolling through social media, then you have that time to write your thoughts out in a journal, get some exercise in, learn insights about productivity and time management, and better yourself.
This week, I’m challenging myself to apply this matrix to as many aspects of my life as possible. When I’m faced with a decision, I’ll take a step back and ask myself “am I doing this because it’s important or because it’s urgent?”
What percentage of your time do you allocate to each of the four quadrants?