Dwight Eisenhower, the 34th President of the United States, lived one of the most productive lives you can imagine. Even before becoming the president of USA, Eisenhower lived quite an eventful life. He was a five-star general in the United States Army, served as the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II, and played a crucial part in the invasions of Germany, France and North Africa.
Not only that, he also served as the Supreme Commander of NATO at some point along the way and was also the President of Columbia University for a certain period. Not to mention, he always found time to pursue hobbies such as oil painting and golfing, even with such a hectic schedule.
Especially during his time in the army, he often had to contend with making extremely tough decisions in pressurized situations, where a lot was at stake. However, he had an uncanny knack for staying productive, not for mere months or weeks, but for decades. Which is why it comes as no surprise that his methods for productivity, task management, and time management have been under scrutiny by many researchers for quite some time.
He pioneered a stellar productivity strategy that helped him prioritize day-to-day tasks by importance and urgency. What we now call the ‘Eisenhower Box’ strategy is a simple decision-making tool that we can swear by in our daily lives as well.
The Urgency vs. Importance Paradox; Are We Bad At Prioritizing?
As Dwight 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.”
Seems like what most of us go through every day. When faced with a gazillion tasks that all scream for attention, how do we decide what to do first?
A report published in the Journal of Consumer Research studied how people decide what to prioritize when caught up in the throes of tasks, all varying in importance and urgency. Researchers observed a recurring pattern across five separate experiments; we are more drawn towards time-sensitive tasks rather than focusing on less urgent tasks, even when those tasks are more important or carry a bigger reward.
We call this psychological quirk the “Mere-Urgency Effect”, and it perfectly explains why most of us suck at time and task management. We are hard-wired to prioritize tasks with a deadline, even when those without one offer long-term payoffs.
However, all hope is not lost. Though the mere-urgency effect is innately rooted in us, it can be reversed with smartness. When participants were stopped at the time of selection and asked to consider the consequences of their choices, many switched to more important tasks over tasks that seemed urgent. The study provided conclusive evidence that by always keeping the long-term importance of non-urgent tasks in plain sight, you can focus on what really matters and resist the pull towards urgent tasks.
That’s where the Eisenhower Box comes in.
The Eisenhower Box: How to be More Productive?
“Who can define for us with accuracy the difference between the long and short term! Especially whenever our affairs seem to be in crisis, we are almost compelled to give our first attention to the urgent present rather than to the important future.”– Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1961 address to the Century Association
Eisenhower had a simple strategy for organizing your tasks and acting accordingly. The decision matrix above sorts out your actions based on 4 possibilities:
1st Quadrant: Urgent And Important (Tasks You Will Do Immediately)
Urgent and Important tasks demand immediate attention. Such tasks usually involve stringent deadlines and stalling to act on such tasks lead to unpleasant consequences. Do these tasks first since they are critical for your career or personal life in some way and need to be dealt with without procrastination. For instance, it could be answering a time sensitive email from a client, taking care of a last-minute deadline imposed on you, or dealing with the leaking tap spring flooding your kitchen.
2nd Quadrant Important, But Not Urgent (Tasks You Will Schedule To Do Later)
The tasks that fall in this quadrant of the Eisenhower Box are more in line with the activities that help you achieve long-term goals. However, if they don’t come with a deadline, they can be scheduled for a later date or time, in favor of tasks that do come with a deadline. For instance, while regular exercise does wonders for your health, you can exercise once you are home from work. Similarly, Professional networking and personal relationship building, maintenance chores, attending events, or learning a new skill are all tasks that fit this category.
This quadrant of the Eisenhower Box is the sweet spot of personal time management, since once you are rid of pressing distractions (from the 1st quadrant), you are free to prioritize activities that contribute to accomplishing meaningful goals and growing your skills and energy. By frequently addressing the concerns that fall in this quadrant, you can significantly reduce the issues cropping up in Quad 1.
3rd Quadrant: Urgent, But Not Important (Tasks You Delegate To Someone Else)
Do you ever feel like you invest too much effort on tasks which are not even that important? Or rush to do something because you feel like it has to be done right away, even though it doesn’t? These urgent but not important tasks are nothing but busy works. These tasks are best described by expectations set by others and do nothing to benefit your long-term goals. for instance, unnecessary interruptions from coworkers, redundant meetings, limited time sales or offers, responding to social media messages, checking your phone on every beep, and so on.
This is where the ‘mere urgency’ dilemma gets the best of us. Real or assumed, the idea of deadlines propels us to take on tasks that aren’t even important to us. The tasks that fall in this quadrant of the Eisenhower Box may seem urgent but can make you feel like you are not living up your larger life goals. The best way to cope with these tasks is to delegate them to someone else. For instant, you can get your groceries delivered instead of running all the way to the store, someone else can take the meeting notes, a digital assistant can schedule the doctor’s visits, or your children can help you do the dishes.
Even if you can’t automate every task, try to keep them from taking over your day. You can turn off the notifications on your phone at work, negotiate workload with your superior, save tasks falling in this list for when you are down and low on energy, and practice saying no from time to time.
4th Quadrant: Not Urgent, Not Important (Tasks You Can Eliminate)
Not urgent and not important tasks are simply time-wasting activities that should be ruthlessly cut out if you are to achieve your long-term goals. These activities don’t contribute towards progress on your goals but do waste away large chunks of time, for instance excessive online browsing, going on shopping sprees, mindlessly scrolling on social media, and watching tv for hours on end.
Quadrant 4 of the Eisenhower Box is synonymous with immediate gratification which later leaves you feeling unfulfilled. While we could do all benefit from some leisure time, the way you spend your downtime can actually drain your creativity, passion, and energy if you’re not intentional about it.
The Difference Between Urgent and Important
While we have been running on about sorting important tasks out from the urgent, we have yet to define what urgent and important constitute? Urgent tasks make up the list of activities that you feel like you need to react to: news stories, texts, phone calls, and emails. Meanwhile important tasks are anything which contribute to our long-term mission, goals, and values. While the difference seems simple enough, the challenge is to sort them out on a daily basis.
Which is why I love the Eisenhower Box and how it provides a clear framework for making the decisions over and over again. It takes care of the hardest part of the method: consistency!
Elimination Before Optimization
The fastest way to get something done is not to do it at all. There is no faster way to do something than to eliminate it from your to-do list once and for all. Now, before you take it as a license for procrastination, this is nothing but a suggestion to make some tough decisions and eliminate every such task from your list that doesn’t bring you closer to your long-term goals, mission, or values.
Too often, we use optimization, time management, and productivity as a pretext to evade the hard-to-answer question: “Do I actually need to be doing this?” It’s much more simple to appear to be busy and keep reminding yourself to “burn the midnight oil”, or to “be just a tad bit more efficient tomorrow,” than to bid adieu to a task which you enjoy or are comfortable with doing, but which isn’t leading anywhere.