Eisenhower: Is It Important or Is It Urgent?

One of the most common struggles, frustrations, or challenges that you’re going to face when working for someone or for yourself is trying to decide how to best juggle your workload.

Granted, what’s considered a “workload” may vary from person-to-person, from job-to-job. But for the purposes of this post, I’ll reduce it to a simple definition that I use on a daily basis:

A workload is the amount of work that you set out to achieve each day.

How you go about doing this will vary on your personality types. Some people, like me, are extremely Type-A. We calendar, schedule, and note everything.

And if something comes along to disrupt that schedule we:

  • Get frustrated,
  • Try to make it work,
  • Or find a place during the week in which it will work.

But this only works for so long. The more work that comes your way, the more demands you have on your time.

This is a good problem to have.

But the method outlined above does not work. That is, as they say, “it doesn’t scale.” Sure, it may work at first and it may work for a little while. But when you’re faced with increasing demands on your time, you have to reprioritize what it is that you’re doing.

How do you go about doing that, though? I don’t care if you’re just starting in a career, if you’re employed, if you’re self-employed, if you’re freelancing, or whatever.

Inevitably, assuming that you find some sort of success, this isn’t going to work forever.

So what are we supposed to do?

What Is Important, What Is Urgent?

President Dwight Eisenhower broke down the different in important tasks and urgent tasks.

General Dwight Eisenhowe

In a simple definition, he laid out the following:

  • Important activities have an outcome that leads to us achieving our goals, whether these are professional or personal.
  • Urgent activities demand immediate attention, and are usually associated with achieving someone else’s goals. They are often the ones we concentrate on and they demand attention because the consequences of not dealing with them are immediate.

So the first step that we all must take is identifying what we believe to be important and what we believe to be urgent.

How Do I Do This?

They say we’re creatures of habit. Sure, but I think the degree to which we adapt to habit varies based on our personalities.

For example, I thrive on routine. The average day – after getting to work – is as follows:

  1. Draft the next blog post that’s in my queue.
  2. Triage the emails that have come in since the night before. Respond to those that I can reply to immediately. Push others off until later. Ignore the rest (more on this in a moment).
  3. Look at my calendar and see if anything has changed on reminders or appointments.
  4. Get to work on the tasks that I have for the day.

Generally speaking, this works but over the past year or two, it’s become increasingly difficult. If you notice, there’s nothing above that helps me to do a better job of triaging what’s important and what’s urgent.

So this has evolved a little bit.

What’s Important, What’s Urgent?

To be clear, I’m still getting in the habit of this so the suggestions or the outline that I’m about to provide is probably only half baked but it is my attempt at moving in the right direction.

Remember, if important activities are those that lead us to achieving our goals then they may be able to wait a little while.

Urgent tasks are those that demand immediate attention (and usually require we focus on someone else’s goals).

So let me revise the above outline:

  1. Important. Draft the next blog post.
  2. Important and Urgent. Respond to emails. If they are for someone else, they are Urgent (though there is some margin here). If they are for me or something that can wait, they are Important.
  3. If the previous set of emails change my calendar or reminders, then I update them. Urgent events and tasks go today. Important tasks and events go to tomorrow (or the earliest time I can tackle them).
  4. Start the new order of tasks for the day.

I don’t have this system on lock yet, but I’m trying. I have found it a bit freeing. It does require saying “No” a little bit more (which is never a bad thing), but it also requires a bit of improved time management.

It also requires that you accept the fact that some of the things you thought you were going to be able to do are now not going to happen right now.

And that’s okay. They’ll still happen, but on a different time table.

Though I prefer Fantastical (both for OS X and iOS) to help with this, there’s even an app called Eisenhower that helps with this.

If paper and pen is what works for you, fantastic. But if you find yourself with that sinking, draining feeling of:

How am I going to get through all this today?

That’s an immediate red flag. I’m speaking from experience. To that, I say that’s a signal you should try filtering everything through Eisenhower’s method. Give it a month. See if it helps.

I’ve found it helpful. Then again, I’m one person (Type A, as it were, even) so this can’t be prescriptive. But try it out and see if your productivity doesn’t increase.

2 Replies to “Eisenhower: Is It Important or Is It Urgent?”

  1. Some good tips. I think it’s worth adding that the urgent tasks that aren’t also important are the biggest drain on most people’s time and stress levels. Sometimes they don’t even help achieve the goals of the person asking you to do them, but the goals of someone else along the line who has asked them to get them done.

    So one of the biggest hits to managing your time better is to spot those urgent tasks that aren’t really important, and sometimes aren’t actually urgent, and to manage other people’s expectations around when (and sometimes whether) you’ll do them. Or there might an alternative to doing them yourself – bounce them back to the person asking you to do them (sometimes they’re just being lazy, or are capable of doing it themselves – my kids are great at this!) or offer them an alternative way of getting it done (instead of answering someone’s question in depth, send them a link to a post that gives the answer, for example).

    1. urgent tasks that aren’t also important are the biggest drain on most people’s time and stress levels.

      Completely agree with this.

      So one of the biggest hits to managing your time better is to spot those urgent tasks that aren’t really important, and sometimes aren’t actually urgent, and to manage other people’s expectations around when (and sometimes whether) you’ll do them.

      Yep – this is key to managing a successful project, in my opinion. At least one of the keys.

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