How to use the Eisenhower Matrix for amazing business success in 2023
"What's important is seldom urgent, and what's urgent is seldom important" — Dwight Eisenhower, 34th President of the United States
Could the Eisenhower Method do this for your business in 2023?
It's December 2023, and you've hit all your important goals.
Your small business is well on its way to delivering the success and freedom you had in mind when you launched it.
You've hit all your key milestones, and you feel like you've climbed your own little mountain.
But not just any mountain ... you've climbed the most important one.
You've set yourself up for years of future success.
You've built key assets in your business such as repeatable systems, a great team, and a strong organizational culture.
You've established clarity around your values, and have successfully aligned them with measurable goals.
As you stand at the top of your mountain, you feel energized and excited.
This new vantage point you've worked hard to arrive at presents limitless possibilities.
The world's your oyster.
You look back on the year that was, and you can now see why you've traveled so far with relatively little effort, considering the distance you've come.
You realize it all came down to one thing: You were consistently proactive with your task selection.
You chose to focus on what was important and only moved those projects forward.
You weren't reactive. You didn't just rush around putting fires all year. You weren't playing the endless game of whack-a-mole so many entrepreneurs find themselves playing (and realize too late that they were doing busy-work but weren't actually moving the needle)
You sigh and say these words: "Thank you, President Eisenhower. You were right. What's important is seldom urgent, and what's urgent is seldom important. We just need to focus on the important stuff. Your Eisenhower Matrix was a stroke of genius — simple but profound!"
Let's do it again in 2024!
Here! We! Go!
How will you approach 2023?
As you head into 2023, you might be well advised to consider using Eisenhower’s approach. This approach was made popular by Stephen Covey and later came to be known as the four quadrants approach.
It's also often referred to as the priority matrix or the Eisenhower decision matrix.
As the name suggests, the matrix was initially created by Dwight Eisenhower who lived an extremely productive life.
He was the 34th President of the United States and served two terms from 1953 to 1961. During his time in office, he launched several programs including (but not limited to) NASA.
He also served as President of Columbia University, became the first Supreme Commander of NATO, and even managed to find time to pursue his hobbies.
He was able to sustain his productivity for decades. His unique approach to time management has been studied by several people over the years.
The big idea (that underpins the Eisenhower Method)
We'll cover this in more detail later as we go through each of the four quadrants, but the big idea here is that most business owners tend to spend too much of their time in reactive mode (quadrant 3 activities) and too little of their time proactively working on the things that really move the needle in their business (quadrant 2 activities).
In the 25 years I've been working with businesses of all sizes ranging from one-person businesses to multinational corporations — I've found this to be true for every single business at some point in their journey.
We tend to spend a lot of time on quadrant 3 stuff which is easy to do but mainly constitutes busy work.
It doesn't really move the needle in the business but often gives us the impression that we're doing "something".
Examples of these low-value "busy work" activities include:
- Checking email constantly
- Checking SMS messages every few minutes
- Allowing distractions to hijack planned activities e.g. buying new software or courses
These tasks are easy to do and give us a sense of forward momentum but can be misleading.
Most of us tend to spend little to no time on quadrant 2 activities. This is the stuff that really moves the needle in the business but often takes some emotional labor to get started.
These tasks tend to require some planning and are often complex.
This is where we should be spending as much time as possible.
Examples of quadrant 2 activities include:
- Building high-quality repeatable systems that make delegation easier
- Hiring great quality team members and investing in the recruitment process
- Updating content on the blog to ensure it delivers a great search experience and aligns with Google's objectives
- Ensuring the website has great design and delivers a low-friction experience to the user
- Building strategically important relationships with key clients and stakeholders
If we spend enough time in quadrant 2 we're less like to have quadrant 1 situations that tend to be disruptive to the smooth running of a business.
Here's an image to illustrate the point
Urgency vs Importance
The Eisenhower Method (aka Eisenhower Matrix) was designed (in part) to avoid the "urgency trap".
The underlying idea is based on this simple but profound premise: What is urgent is seldom important, and what's important is seldom urgent.
And this is a critical element of task prioritization. Focusing (reactively) on the urgent stuff, almost always leads to a build-up of the really important stuff which then leads to crises.
The key takeaway is to focus on what’s important (but usually not urgent). This is what helps you make big (strategic) gains in your business or life.
If you don’t consciously focus on these priorities, they don’t get done. And that leaves you with little to no long-term progress.
The urgency trap and why you need to avoid it
If you say "yes" to any of these statements then you've been victim to the urgency trap:
- My daily activities don't seem to align with my long-term goals
- I put out fires all day but don't seem to make any real progress
- I have long-term goals but I can never seem to find the time to get to them
- I can't/won't delegate tasks because ... (insert reason here)
I often find myself asking the question: "Why am I doing this right now? I should be focused on (insert important task here)?"
The urgency trap seems to be all-pervasive.
With an increasing number of screens in each of our lives, the (perceived) urgency of messages has skyrocketed. Perhaps that is because our visual systems are highly prioritized.
The Mere-Urgency effect
The mere-urgency effect was discussed in the Journal of consumer research in 2018. It states that people often choose to perform urgent tasks with short timeframes, over important tasks with longer and larger outcomes.
Important (and less urgent) tasks tend to be complex, and difficult and have longer timeframes to completion.
Urgent tasks involve more immediate and certain payoffs which appeal to our reptilian brains.
The research concluded that the mere-urgency effect is a tendency to pursue urgency over importance.
Specifically, results from five experiments demonstrate that people are more likely to perform unimportant tasks (i.e., tasks with objectively lower payoffs) over important tasks (i.e., tasks with objectively better payoffs), when the unimportant tasks are characterized merely by spurious urgency (e.g., an illusion of expiration). The mere urgency effect documented in this research violates the basic normative principle of dominance—choosing objectively worse options over objectively better options. People behave as if pursuing an urgent task has its own appeal, independent of its objective consequence.
Source: Journal of Consumer research Volume 45, Issue 3, October 2018 Pages 673-690
People who describe themselves as busy appear to be particularly prone to the mere-urgency effect.
The good news?
The mere-urgency effect can be reversed.
The solution: Consider the consequences of your choices at the time of (task) selection.
In his Stanford address Steve Jobs said that he asked himself every day for 33 years:
“If today was the last day of my life would I want to do what I’m about to do today?”
And if the answer was "No'" for too many days in a row, then Steve knew he had to change something.
He went on to say this:
"Death is very likely the single best invention of life. It’s life’s change agent.”
What an amazing filter to decide on what's important and to bring your focus to the things that truly matter.
Perhaps using death is a bit extreme (Steve Jobs had already faced a cancer diagnosis before he wrote that speech) but you get the idea.
The key here is to use rigor when deciding where your focus is going to lie before you actually embark on execution.
Once you're knee-deep in the task it's often too late because you're already down in the weeds.
Applying the Eisenhower Matrix should be a very big part of your daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly planning activities.
As Perry Marshall and I discussed in episode 186 of the Productive Insights podcast, planning is one of those $ 10,000-an-hour activities and ensuring you avoid the mere urgency trap should be a core part of that process.
How to Use the Eisenhower Method to Prioritize Your Tasks
Once you're clear on what's urgent, and what's important, the Eisenhower method is easy to implement. The four-quadrant grid classifies tasks based on these two axes — urgency and importance.
The urgency axis tells you how soon the task needs to be done and the importance axis tells you how valuable the task is in terms of your project or your goal.
Examples of quadrant 1 activities: Urgent and Important.
These tend to be crises (but aren't always crises) and you want to handle them sooner rather than later.
- A heart attack
- A disgruntled staff member
- A crisis at work could result in you losing your job if not resolved immediately
For example, if you stick to a regular fitness routine (as we’ll see in the next quadrant) then you’re less likely to have a heart attack.
Sure, you can never completely eliminate all urgent and important tasks, but you can significantly reduce the likelihood of them occurring.
By being proactive and spending more time in quadrant 2.
Examples of quadrant 2 activities: Not Urgent but important.
These are tasks aligned with your overall mission and have a strong “value-add” component.
- Regular exercise
- Proactively managing projects so staff members have everything they need
- Launching a membership site (which delivers predictable recurring income)
If you stick to a regular exercise routine — i.e. execute tasks while they are important but not yet urgent (Quadrant 2), you’re far less likely to get a heart attack — i.e. You’ve dealt with your health by exercising regularly and averted a (Quadrant 1) crisis – a heart attack.
Ideally, you want to spend as much time on quadrant 2 activities as possible. But to do this you need to understand your values and goals to know what’s truly important.
Examples of quadrant 3 activities: Urgent but Not Important.
This is stuff that requires your attention now but isn’t really aligned with your long-term goals. Think interruptions, distractions, and generally directionless effort.
- Interruptions as people walk by your desk to have "a quick conversation" that is never quick
- Responding to text messages constantly
- Lengthy meetings with no agenda or planned outcomes
According to Stephen Covey, many people spend most of their time on Q3 tasks thinking they’re working on Q1 tasks. These Q3 tasks often involve other people and give us a false sense of purpose and achievement because we walk away with the feeling of having ‘helped someone.
It’s fine and normal to spend some time each day in the third quadrant. But it’s particularly damaging to spend most of your time in Q3 particularly if you think you’re operating in Q1.
The solution? Learn to say no.
Be very selective about the tasks that you take on. Plan your day the night before, when you’re emotionally uninvolved, and stick to the plan unless you’re hit with an emergency.
Examples of quadrant 4: Not Urgent and Not Important
Think of downtime and recreational activities.
- Checking Facebook
- Looking at cute cat photos
- Watching TV shows
Don’t get me wrong. You need downtime. We all do.
But make sure these Q4 activities don’t take over your day. Fence them off in your calendar — preferably towards the end of the day.
- Before using the Eisenhower matrix you need to get clear on what’s urgent and what’s important. And this really comes down to understanding your role (and your stakeholders’ roles) in the context of your wider organization. If you can’t get this right, you won’t be able to differentiate between the urgent stuff and the important stuff.
- Once you’re clear on the urgent vs important tasks, the next priority is to aim to spend most of your time in quadrant 2. (More on this in the last point)
- The best way to do this? Learn to be assertive and say “no” to quadrant 3 tasks. For example, before you accept a meeting invitation make sure you understand what the outcomes are. Make it a point not to attend meetings unless there’s a clear agenda, and your presence is actually required.
- Fence off the quadrant 4 tasks in your calendar, preferably towards the end of the day.
- And most importantly, spend as much time as you possibly can in quadrant 2. Do the important stuff that’s aligned with your long-term vision. Do your best to get to it before it becomes overwhelmingly urgent and gives you a heart attack!
The Eisenhower Matrix helps you organize your work in a way that not only makes you more productive but also makes you more effective.
As Peter Drucker so eloquently said:
There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.
It helps you focus on doing the right things efficiently (and delegating or eliminating the rest).
If you can really embrace this approach, you'll find yourself feeling less overwhelmed and far more satisfied with your life.
What are your thoughts on task prioritization? How do you decide on your to-do list?