In the 1950s, President Dwight D. Eisenhower visited Northwestern University to deliver an address to the Second Assembly of the World Council of Churches. During his speech to the assembly, he quoted the university’s then president J. Roscoe Miller, saying, “I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”
When it comes to understanding what we need to get done in order to make the most out of our businesses, it can often become easy to confuse the urgent and the important. We end up spending our time and energy on issues that, at the time, seem to be more important because of their urgency, putting aside other things that give our time more value.
For instance, responding to a colleague’s work email immediately, interrupting what you’ve been working on presently, in order to respond.
Sure, that work email seemed like something that needed to be responded to in that moment. But… was it more important than what you had been working on? Or did it simply feel that way because of the urgency associated with responding to a coworker?
If you find yourself struggling to figure out what actually is the most important and when it needs to get done, take a leaf out of Eisenhower’s book and use The Eisenhower Matrix.
The Eisenhower Matrix
The Eisenhower Matrix is a tool created to help you cut through the noise and home in on what is most important to work on right now. The matrix is broken up into four quadrants: 1. Do, 2. Schedule, 3. Delegate, 4. Eliminate.
If you’re going to put your immediate time and energy towards something, it should fall within the first two quadrants, Do and Schedule.
Let’s go back to that email. Was responding to that email necessary? If it was, but it wasn’t urgent – as in responding right this moment wasn’t really needed, than it should fall into category 2: Schedule a time later in the day to respond to the email.
But let’s say that email was important. Maybe it pertained to an upcoming event or product launch you’re in charge of and, by not responding immediately, things could’ve gone sideways. Obviously, that deserves to be put into quadrant 1 and you did the right thing by taking care of it as quickly as you did.
Or, let’s say the email was urgent, but you weren’t the one who needed to take care of it. If a client needed to reschedule a meeting later that day, for example, you could put this problem in quadrant 3: Delegate. Forward the email to your assistant or a coworker who could help the client reschedule. That way it gets taken care of quickly, but it doesn’t interrupt the proposal you’ve been working on all morning.
Most importantly, sometimes things just, well, don’t really matter. In the span of our day, we’re inundated with countless sound bits, requests, and emails that honestly don’t really make a lick of difference to our overall productivity. They’re the time suck, rabbit hole distractions that pull us from the work we need to focus on the most. If that’s the case, don’t be afraid to put it into quadrant 4: Eliminate. If it was a silly request for something that was unimportant – delete that email. Ignore it. Don’t respond.
While that may seem harsh or rude, the reality is if it’s that important – they’ll follow up. They’ll call or email you again. The important thing to do is not assume that everyone who contacts you is doing so over something that is worth your time. If it is, they’ll likely let you know or you’ll be able to know intuitively. Otherwise, let those distractions go!