Good Signals / Task management

Avoid the urgency trap and focus on the right things first, with the Eisenhower Matrix

Eisenhower Matrix

John Cabot employee using the Eisenhower Matrix

How to be more productive and eliminate time wasting activities by using the “Eisenhower Box”

Your website is down, ads aren’t showing, a journalist wants a comment, Google is rolling out a new algorithm update, you’ve had a bad review AND your boss has just asked for a report… In digital marketing, things are constantly moving and it is incredibly easy to lose an entire morning to those time-sucking vampire tasks that take you away from what you need to do to really make a difference. To avoid getting caught up in daily chaos ourselves, we use the Eisenhower Matrix to prioritise what will matter most to our clients’ businesses.

We often see in-house marketing team’s endless to-do lists grow even more or completely redirect all of their efforts in a snap decision entirely based on what the loudest person in the room wants them to do. If this is you, we suggest adopting the Eisenhower Matrix for both your professional and personal development.

It’s a simple technique designed to help you embrace your inner project manager to manage your time, clarify what’s important and get you back on track when you’re feeling overwhelmed. Use this framework to identify priorities and eliminate distractions. Click below to download your free PDF worksheet so you can fill in your own tasks and take action from today.

What is the Eisenhower Matrix?

Back in 1989, author Stephen Covey published The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, popularising the techniques of the 34th President of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower. This now widely-used technique, the Eisenhower Matrix, draws on all Eisenhower’s methods for time management, task management, decision-making and productivity that enabled him to live his unbelievably productive life.

At its core, the Matrix is all about changing your mindset and recognising the difference between “urgent” and “important”. In the words of Eisenhower himself, “what is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.” Figuring out the difference allows you to compartmentalise your thoughts, giving you guilt-free permission to focus on what really matters and eliminate anything that won’t positively contribute to your goals.

Ignoring your important tasks in favour of the more urgent, putting-out-fire type of tasks will usually leave you feeling exhausted and unaccomplished at the end of the day.

What is the difference between important and urgent tasks?

What is important is such a loaded question as it’s different to each of us. It’s the important tasks that ultimately help us achieve our goals, making it essential to take a step back and figure out whatever that may be. Important issues tend to be the ones that promote real growth and contribute to the bigger picture but often aren’t time-sensitive. These may be to do with your own life goals, core values or the long-term growth of the business.

Urgent tasks, while it may seem self-explanatory, is often where many of us trip up by determining everything is urgent when in reality it isn’t. Urgent tasks need immediate attention, they’re time-sensitive and often time-consuming. This may also include meetings and phone calls. If a task needs completing today or tomorrow, it’s urgent, but if it can be delayed, it’s simply not. If a task can be completed by another member of the team, it’s not urgent for you.

It’s important to note that many urgent tasks can actually be avoided by prioritising important tasks earlier on.

How to use the matrix

As you can imagine, urgent tasks can often seem like they’re more important than they are, causing your important tasks to get pushed further and further down your to-do list. Eisenhower’s Matrix separates your tasks into 4 quadrants, allowing you to clearly see your priorities.

Quadrant 1: urgent & important

Often these are close deadlines that have been put off and are suddenly closing in or serious crises that need immediate attention. These may also include last-minute obligations that are important to you.

Complete these immediately.

Quadrant 2: important not urgent

These are tasks worth prioritising and scheduling for the future so you make sure you actually get them done. Often these are the tasks that promote achieving your goals, particularly long-term ones. Tasks may include:

  • Watching conferences for expert knowledge and advice
  • Conducting research for a project
  • Planning for the future
  • Building relationships

Complete these next.

Quadrant 3: urgent not important

These tasks are usually the bulk of what people do in their day-to-day lives. They’re often menial tasks that pop up out of the blue and demand your time. Ideally, these should be either delegated to someone else – perhaps someone who would benefit from the experience – or be automated if possible. Examples include:

  • Uploading blog posts, content or social media posts
  • Interruptions from co-workers needing help
  • Reporting dashboards

Delegate these tasks.

Quadrant 4: not important & not urgent

These tasks are what we’d call time wasters. The best thing you can do with them is to eliminate them from your to-do list entirely. Of course, if you need a break from your urgent and important tasks, feel free to take them on, but otherwise, they’re simply interruptions that are wasting time that could be used on more important things. These can include:

  • Checking social media
  • Reading unimportant emails
  • Publishing content for the sake of it
  • Sorting and organising, rather than tackling
  • Browsing the web

Eliminate time-wasting tasks.

Top tip

If you use productivity tools or apps (e.g: To-doistTrello or Wrike), label or colour coordinate your tasks into the 4 quadrants using priority levels.

After using Eisenhower’s Matrix for a while, you should start noticing a positive change to your mindset and a boost in productivity. It’ll become much easier to schedule your work, prioritise for the immediate future and handle small crises and big deadlines.

Frequently asked questions

If you’ve fallen into the habit of constantly putting out fires, forever in meetings, barely scraping deadlines and, while always being busy, never actually seem to get anything done, this method is for you. It might not just be you who promotes this urgent-first mentality, perhaps you have a team member or manager who unrealistically determines every task is urgent, convincing you of its urgency.

Realistically, being in that kind of fire-fighting environment can feel amazing in the short term thanks to the recognition of saving the day and becoming the office hero - that’s one of the biggest draws of the urgency trap. Eventually, however, you’ll find you need to accomplish bigger, more impactful initiatives. If that’s where you’re at, it’s worth giving this a try.

It can be easy to lose sight of what is truly important to you. Here we have a few prompts to get you thinking:

1. What do your or your organisation’s core beliefs and values urge you to prioritise?

2. Write down 3 things you do every day that are reactive rather than proactive.

3. Write down 3 things you’d like to do if you had the time. Think about your milestones like traffic, sales or conversions.

4. Write down 3 things you did yesterday that someone else could have completed.

5. Write down 3 things you did yesterday that could have waited.

Dealing with someone you work with, especially a manager, who claims everything is urgent can be a difficult situation. If there are clear strategies that you’re all working towards, the goal is to make the cost and consequences of these urgent, unrealistic expectations as transparent as possible. Everything has a tradeoff - make that clear for good team management. If this is unsuccessful, it’s because often people are too caught up in the urgency of everything. Instead, try investigating where that urgency comes from and look for longer-term solutions.

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