The Ultimate Productivity Tool
Today at a Glance
- President Dwight D. Eisenhower was known for his prolific, almost otherworldly productivity. His secret: He never confused the urgent with the important.
- The Eisenhower Matrix is a 2x2 visualization tool that forces you to differentiate between the urgent and the important in order to prioritize and manage your time more effectively.
- The Goal: Manage urgent and important tasks, spend most of your time on the not urgent and important tasks, and spend less time on the not important tasks.
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Here's a common scene:
It's Monday morning and although the week just started, you're already scrambling from task to task, moving from one stress-inducing fire to the next. It feels like the minute one fire is out, another one is sparked. By noon, you're well aware that the week is going to be yet another energy-draining fight to survive.
Friday comes around and despite the hours you logged, it’s hard to point to any substantive progress. There was a lot of movement, but no forward progress—a “rocking horse” week, if you will.
If this sent a little chill down your spine, you're not alone. Trust me, I've been there.
Here's the simple, powerful tool that helped me focus my energy and escape.
Separating Urgent & Important
President Dwight D. Eisenhower—or Ike as his friends called him—was an American military officer and politician born in Denison, Texas in 1890.
His list of personal and professional accolades is long:
- The West Point graduate rose through the ranks of the military to achieve the 5-star rank of general in the United States Army.
- During World War II, he served as Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe and led the famed invasion of Normandy from the Western Front.
- Eisenhower served as President of Columbia University and the first Supreme Commander of NATO before being elected as the 34th President of the United States, a role he occupied from 1953 to 1961.
As his military and civilian accomplishments indicate, Eisenhower was a highly-effective leader and executive. He became known for his prolific, almost otherworldly productivity.
His secret: He never confused the urgent with the important.
"What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important." - Dwight D. Eisenhower
We can define the two terms as follows (hat tip to Brett McKay):
- URGENT: A task that requires immediate attention to complete.
- IMPORTANT: A task that contributes to your long-term mission, values, or goals.
With this separation and grounding, let's walk through the tool: The Eisenhower Matrix.
The Eisenhower Matrix
The Eisenhower Matrix is a visualization tool that forces you to differentiate between the urgent and the important in order to prioritize and manage your time more effectively.
The matrix was popularized by Stephen R. Covey in his famous 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
Here’s how the 2x2 matrix works:
- X-Axis: Not Urgent to Urgent
- Y-Axis: Not Important to Important
The four quadrants of the 2x2 to consider:
- Important & Urgent
- Important & Not Urgent
- Not Important & Urgent
- Not Important & Not Urgent
Let's walk through each one and how to use it:
Important & Urgent
These are tasks that require immediate, focused attention—but also contribute to your long-term mission or goals.
These are "Do Now!" tasks.
Goal: In the short-term, you want to handle these immediately, but in the long-term, you want to manage the important tasks such that they rarely become urgent.
Sahil Note: Life gets much less stressful when you realize that *URGENT* is very rarely that urgent. Fake Urgency often pulls you away from Real Importance. It has a doubly-damning effect.
Important & Not Urgent
These tasks are your compounders—they build long-term value in your life.
These are "Decide" tasks, as you can strategize and schedule when to focus on them.
Goal: Spend more time on these tasks—plan the time to do deep work here. In the long-term, this is where you should try to spend most of your time and energy.
Not Important & Urgent
These tasks are the "beware" category—they can drain time and energy without contributing to your long-term goals or vision.
These are "Delegate" tasks.
Goal: Spend less time here and slowly try to build systems that allow you to delegate these tasks to people for whom they will be important.
Not Important & Not Urgent
These are the time wasting tasks and activities that drain your energy and sap your productivity.
These are "Delete" tasks.
Goal: Spend less time here.
Sahil Note: It’s tempting to classify all "leisure" activities like relaxing and watching TV into this quadrant, but if these activities help you recharge, they may actually be important. For example, I would consider our evening TV ritual to be an important part of my wife and my relationship. It's a simple way that we recharge together. Think carefully before deleting tasks that may be helping you reset.
Putting It All Together
The Eisenhower Matrix is a powerful productivity tool on two levels:
- In the present, it helps you organize and prioritize your tasks and time. If you're feeling overwhelmed, it creates a forced slowdown that will allow you to zoom out and assess where you should be spending your time.
- In the long-term, it teaches you to focus on the important and avoid the (largely) unnecessary urgency that fills our days.
The Ultimate Goal: Spend most of your time on the important tasks that contribute to your long-term mission, values, or goals.
To summarize the takeaways:
- Manage the top-right
- Spend most of your time in the top-left
- Spend less time in the bottom half
I write a lot about productivity, but I have never found a single tool that is more useful than the Eisenhower Matrix. I find myself turning to it regularly, especially when I have a lot on my plate and need to reset my focus.