“It’s not enough to be busy. The question is: What are we busy about?” — Henry David Thoreau
Sometimes it feels like 24 hours in a day just isn’t enough to get everything done, yet some people seem to achieve much more in the span of one day. How is that? It could be how they are choosing to spend their time. Thoreau might say they’re busy about different things than the rest of us.
Operating at a higher level of efficiency doesn’t take a ton of time, money, or resources. You could achieve that same productivity with just a simple change in the way you view your day.
Enter the time management matrix. It’s a terrific way to prioritize all the things you must do in a day or with a project and organize them so that you can utilize your energy in a way that avoids burn out and allows you to do more.
What is it?
The Time Management Matrix is a graph that divides tasks into four different quadrants:
- Quadrant 1: Urgent and important
- Quadrant 2: Not urgent and important
- Quadrant 3: Urgent and not important
- Quadrant 4: Not urgent and not important
Writing this as a 2x2 grid helps. Across the top of the table put “Urgent” and “Not Urgent” and down the side put “Important” and “Not Important.” That’ll give you four boxes where you’re able to tag tasks.
Stephen R. Covey famously wrote about the matrix in his bestseller “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” but the idea is really credited to the 34th president of the U.S., Dwight D. Eisenhower, who often had to make difficult decisions. This is why you’ll sometimes see the method called the “Eisenhower Box” or “Eisenhower Matrix.” The president developed the system when he was a general in the army.
At its core, the matrix is a way to determine priorities and help you stay on top of them, while easily seeing distractions for what they are (and ignoring them).
What’s the difference between urgent and important?
Urgent and important can kind of sound like synonyms. Isn’t something important if it’s urgent? Well, kind of. But knowing the difference is what will supercharge your productivity.
Distinguish the two this way:
- Important means these responsibilities must be done because they are necessary for your most important goals, but there isn’t necessarily a pressing deadline.
- Urgent means you are being asked to focus on these matters as quickly as possible, whether they work towards a key goal or not.
“I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important,” Eisenhower said of his duties. “The urgent (problems) are not important, and the important are never urgent.”
So a task that might be urgent but not important is replying to follow-up emails. A task that is important but not urgent is researching graduate school programs. The emails feel urgent (which can feel important), but aren't really moving you forward in any meaningful way. Grad school research would move you towards a major career goal, but no one is going to force you to do it on a timeline -- only you can prioritize it and make time for it.
Here is each quadrant simplified:
- Urgent and important: Tasks that are crucial to success and have a deadline or require immediate action. Finishing a presentation for your manager, for example.
- Not urgent and important: These are your long term goals. These are things that matter most to you and will take willpower and focus to accomplish.
- Urgent and not important: These may be tasks that you can eliminate or delegate. They have a deadline, but are not crucial to your goals. This might be a favor that you do for somebody last minute.
- Not urgent and not important: These tasks, as they don’t serve a goal and they aren’t urgent. According to Eisenhower and Covey, these tasks should be eliminated. But these tasks might also be guilty pleasures -- something that isn't urgent or important to accomplish, but that makes you feel happy. Remember that we are not robots; sometimes it's okay to do something just because you like it. Just make sure you aren't getting dragged down by too many things that slow you down overall.
Why it works
There are a thousand things vying for our attention each day, and sometimes we get caught up in the details without even considering if they are worth our time and energy. When was the last time you eliminated some on your to-do list because you realized it really didn’t serve a purpose? Many of us hardly ever think about that, and when we are forced to let something go, it comes with a feeling of guilt.
The matrix does a really smart thing by changing the way we look at tasks. Instead of thinking we need to do everything, we take a more focused survey, and maybe even find where we can bolster our efforts and cut back other places.
It allows us to think critically about the way we spend our time.
When we’re not actively thinking about our priorities, getting wrapped in those “not urgent and not important” or sometimes the “urgent and not important” becomes auto-pilot.
Likewise, the grid teaches us about balance. Putting all of your energy in the “urgent and important” square all the time would be exhausting. It can quickly become a place of reaction or crisis.
The “not urgent and important” tasks are things we shouldn’t let sneak up on us and become “urgent and important.” Instead, we should see these tasks as the long game. This quadrant, quadrant 2, is particularly important because it shows us our goals and what we want to achieve. It also helps us to realize what tasks may not be as important, and so we can take the proper actions to address them.
When to use it
Eisenhower designed this matrix because he was facing a lot of decisions, many of them seemingly urgent and important, on a daily basis, and focusing the same amount of attention on everything all the time just wasn’t an option.
The matrix can be a great way to overcome a team project that feels overwhelming. Ask yourself: what’s on fire versus what can be delegated? Think about what tasks are on the horizon but not pressing yet.
This method can also work well with planning weekly or daily schedules. When you look at what you plan to accomplish today, which quadrant would you put those responsibilities in? Are you doing what's actually most important, or are you putting out fires for other people?
Sometimes it’s not always apparent whether something is important or urgent. There’s a way to deal with those blurred lines, too.
The Ink+Volt Priority Pad takes Eisenhower’s method to heart, but delves a little deeper with prompts about goals, obligations, favors, and guilty pleasures.
After using the method for a while it can become more apparent where your goals are and what kinds of tasks you can offload or get rid of altogether.
Before you know it the things you are busy about are much different than they were before. Thoreau would surely be proud.