Sometimes it feels like the work will never end. We’ve all had those days where the emails don’t stop arriving, the phone doesn’t stop ringing, and the customers don’t stop flooding in.
How do you manage your priorities when it’s relentless? Being able to figure out the urgency and importance of the tasks in front of you is a valuable skill to have when it comes to proactively managing the flow of work.
This is where the Eisenhower Matrix can help.
The matrix is a way to help you understand how to best manage your time when it comes to dealing with the to-do list that’s staring at you while panic sets in.
The Eisenhower Matrix gets its name from the former US President, Dwight D Eisenhower, who described the challenges he faced:
“I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”
Most of us can relate to this – we all have projects or ideas that we want to dedicate time to, but we never have time to get around to them. But using the Eisenhower Matrix to project manage your workload can help you to clearly see which elements of your to-do list require the most time and thought dedicated to them.
How to use the Eisenhower Matrix
The matrix is a simple two-by-two grid which helps you to split your work based on how urgent and important it is. In the top left, you have “urgent/important” and next to it, “important/not urgent” – the these two are where your priorities lie.
Underneath these, you have “urgent/unimportant” and “unimportant/not urgent”. Anything that falls into the former can and should be addresses or delegated to colleagues or staff. Anything in the latter can (probably) be ignored.
It can be difficult to know what fits where, but a good place to start is in defining the difference between “important/unimportant” and “urgent/not urgent”.
- Important work is that which is of direct relevance to your day-to-day
- Urgent work requires immediate attention or is managed by other people who require your input.
These definitions can help you to begin to see where tasks fall and who should be dealing with them: you, a colleague, or nobody at all. Work which falls into the bottom right quadrant, the “unimportant/not urgent” is the lowest priority and should be bottom of your to-do list.
The Eisenhower Matrix is effectively a time-management and project-management tool, but it can be much more than just a surface-level approach to task management.
Being able to appraise the tasks in front of you and work out what you should be spending time on can be the first step in an approach to working more productively over the long term.
Learning how to work deeply
The idea of deep work is one we’ve touched on briefly before, but a new book by the American author Cal Newport breaks down the subject in detail. In it, Newport explores our fractured ability to focus in the book, explaining how the attention economy has changed, and is changing, the way our minds work.
Newport defines work as either “shallow” or “deep”. Shallow work is that which fits in the Eisenhower Matrix as either urgent/unimportant or unimportant/not urgent, and these are ironically the tasks which take up our time and attention, leaving us short of both and unable to focus on the tasks which require uninterrupted focus.
The attention economy and the proliferation of attention-grabbing devices – phones, smart phones, tablets and applications (Slack, Skype, emails, social media notifications) – means that our attention spans have fractured. This sees us jumping between tasks with little more than surface-level concentration dedicated at any time. And we all know that multitasking makes us less effective and less efficient.
Inject boredom to improve productivity
In an interview with Trello, Newport recommends “injecting boredom into your life” and learning to adapt to periods of time during which you are less exposed to the types of novel stimuli listed above. This is the best way to prepare for focused periods of deep work, which produces “valuable assets, innovative and ideas, and impactful outcomes”.
There’s obviously a degree of self-discipline required here, and that can be a difficult skill to develop. However, practice makes perfect, and dedicating even small chunks of time to working in this focused way will help generate impact for you later down the line.