Is something really important? Or is it just urgent masquerading as important?
Most people conflate the two. I did, until discovering the Eisenhower Boxes and the Macro Priority Matrix which are revolutionising my productivity.
Prefer to watch this in video form? Here you go: https://youtu.be/22OqvIK2sGM
When it comes to hours in the day, I'm equally wealthy as the most productive people on Earth. And yet, like most people in business, the thing I'm constantly short of is not money...it's time.
A Productive President
See that bottom right distinguished-looking fellow in black and white? He looks distinguished for a reason - he was the 34th President of the United States.
Dwight Eisenhower was famed for his productivity and in a 1954 speech explained his time management saying:
'I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important and the important are never urgent.'
It's fascinating that he made the distinction between important and urgent because humans respond to (and tend to chase) urgency rather than importance.
The Eisenhower Boxes
Somewhere along the line a smarty-pants created a matrix that plots urgent against important and named it the Eisenhower Boxes:
Pretty easy to understand right? Just write in your tasks for the day/week/year/life in the relevant box.
1. EMERGENCIES (top left box - urgent and important)
These are the time sensitive events that put us in an alarm state. A paramedic on scene is operating in this box. The POS (point of sale) system going down in your business is an event in this box. No POS = no payments = no sales = no business.
2. INTERRUPTIONS (bottom left box - urgent but not important)
Ever had a door-to-door salesman try to sell you encyclopedias? I haven't. And I don't know anyone who has.
But I do recall a few trying to sell me solar panels.
This is a classic interruption - urgent because there's someone knocking at your door but what they have to say is not important. Another interruption might be the office running out of printer paper. Sure it might be urgent (the whole office can't print anything) but is it really more important than that meeting with C suite? Or showing a customer that property?
Corporate life is full of interruptions mostly, punctuated by the occasional emergency.
3. TIME WASTERS (bottom right box - neither urgent nor important)
The store room out the back needs to be cleaned. Not urgent, not important, but a delightfully refreshing break from the more serious work happening out front.
That's because non-urgent, unimportant activities are 'escape' activities.
4. GROWTH (top right box - important but never urgent)
The top right 'growth' box is where we build our future. Everything strategic, planned or improved is born from spaces and places that are important but never urgent. Planning the next product? Setting a marketing budget? Top right box. These are important but not urgent...which is a good thing because urgency clouds judgement and forces us into duct-taped solutions to get us through emergencies.
5. EISENHOWER BOXES ACTIONS
There is an extension of the Eisenhower Boxes that includes actions for each quadrant:
Naturally, we should be spending most of our time in this top right box, scheduling and prioritising those important tasks.
Emergencies of course need to be attended to immediately, Fix the POS system NOW.
Time Wasters should be delayed until later when the other boxes are empty. Clean the store room later.
Interruptions should be delegated away. Send the intern to buy more office paper.
STATIC TOOLS FAIL
This is where the story usually ends but I'm not satisfied with the Eisenhower Boxes. Like most analytics they are static and fail to take into account dynamic forces. Or I could say it like this:
The Eisenhower Boxes may analyse my time but I need something to design my time for increased productivity.
Enter the Macro Priority Matrix (MPM):
The boxes are different sizes because the borders are dynamic. The boxes breathe - larger and smaller. Ideally, I want my growth box large like this, pushing interruptions, time wasters and emergencies aside.
But this is not how most MPMs look. Nearly every manager or business owner has an MPM that looks like this:
How does it get like this? Imagine the quarterly BAS (an Australian tax reporting obligation). At first it's important but not urgent because it's not due for months. It's in the top right box. If we neglect it long enough though, it drifts to the left until suddenly it's an urgent emergency because it's due tomorrow!
Simply with the passage of time, items drift to the left on all MPMs, bloating the emergency and interruptions boxes, crowding out any growth initiatives.
It is also common for bad management to move left on the MPM because they mistake urgency for importance. Being stuck in the time wasting box is common (lack of purpose, unclear job role, in between jobs) but treacherous because in the absence of anything in the important band (growth or emergencies), humans substitute interruptions. It doesn't matter how unimportant a task is, as long as it is urgent we get a sweet, sweet release of dopamine when completed.
A Word on Delegation
Interruptions appear to be the primary job description of most corporate workers. A failure to delegate keeps items on your MPM in a bloated bottom left box when it should be on someone else's MPM.
"But I have no staff! I can't delegate to anyone."
That's not what delegation means in 2020.
My Tesla is luxurious, most people would agree, but not in the traditional sense like the Mercedes here which costs twice as much. Cars used to be a symbol of luxury because of their capabilities. In the late 1990s and early 2000s luxury marques like BMW, Mercedes Benz and Audi were reduced to incremental technological progress and so began to rely more on interior materials, fit and finish to flex their luxury credentials (something Bentley and Rolls Royce have never wavered from).
Once again we are returning to an age of rapid automotive technological progress where luxury is my car driving itself, parking itself, coming to me in a carpark all by itself, not the number of dead cows inside, or the intricacy of the stitching on the steering wheel. A large part of driving in a Tesla is delegated to a computer.
Similarly, we live in the age of automation where it is now feasible for even the lowliest 'meat in the corporate grinder' to delegate much of their jobs to technology. In my current work with artificial intelligence, I've witnessed journalists quietly delegate their entire job (about 85%) to technology that I sell. They still show up to work, but they trade a small slice of their paycheck for the freedom to focus on their side hustle...on work's time...while actually improving their job performance!
On a personal level, I delegate nightly cooking (urgent but not important) to one or two days a week where I cook a large amount of food for the week thus minimising the daily interruption. In other words,
I delegate to myself, but to the me on another day.
Symptoms of Each Box
If you are constantly dealing with emergency after emergency, feeling like you are fighting fires all day, you are predominantly living in the top left box. You may even have a truly urgent and important job like fighting fires.
Seriously though, why is your role so important at your organisation? Are they under-staffing? Is the company falling apart with no processes, planning or foresight? Are you an adrenaline junkie?
It's time to carve out some time for growth and planning activities.
Are you listless, without purpose and bored? Be careful of the urgency trap. You're likely living in the bottom right box and anything urgent will look attractive. Resist that temptation and instead look to upgrade your day's importance without raising the urgency.
Are you constantly busy but never find the time to achieve what you really want to achieve? Welcome to the majority of us who live in the bottom left box.
It's time to delegate more than you ever thought possible, and accept that it's ok to neglect items in the lower boxes for items in the growth quadrant.
It can seem unwise to prioritise seemingly unimportant activities over 'important' activities in the interruptions box, but remember they are not important they are only urgent.
For example, what's more important - should I watch 2 hours of Ted Talks tonight on public speaking or should I catch up on a couple of emails my boss sent me about that big client?
The truth is, I want to become a great speaker, and get paid for it. So even though it isn't urgent, it is much wiser for me to watch those videos tonight and deal with the work emails tomorrow morning at 9am.
Should I go to the gym after work or should I race to Rebel Sport instead to grab some shoes in their 24 hour sale? After all, I can always go to the gym tomorrow but the sale ends tonight.
Go. To. The. Gym.
Always prioritise growth activities because if we allow interruptions to direct us we'll never [become a great public speaker/get fit].
1. Use the Eisenhower Boxes and the Macro Priority Matrix to get an honest view of your day/week/job/career/life.
2. Design your ideal Macro Priority Matrix using the white actions (Do, Delegate, Ignore, Focus).
3. Have the courage to follow through with paradoxical decisions that prioritise growth activities, no matter how strange it feels.
Use the Macro Priority Matrix: download PDF.