Have you ever confused something that’s important with something that’s urgent – or vice-versa? That your time is often spent firefighting to the point where you’ve no energy left?

Don’t worry, you’re not alone! The ‘Eisenhower Decision Principle,’ named after for US president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, is a way of thinking and working that guided him throughout his career.

The Difference Between Urgent and Important

The start point for the discussion is to fully understand the difference between the two.

When something is urgent it clearly requires immediate attention. A task that literally cannot possibly wait for a moment longer.

Important tasks can be urgent, but in general terms are not. They don’t require carrying out with any immediacy, but are equally not to be left in abeyance for too long.

A natural instinct sees us often believe that all urgent activities are also important, and with 24-hour news channels and the like constantly reinforcing such behaviour, is it any wonder that it often becomes overwhelming?

Mobile devices ensure that we are ‘always on,’ making it even more difficult to process what is important and what is urgent, often leading to burnout.

The Eisenhower Decision Matrix

The Eisenhower Decision Matrix helps individuals make the distinction between what’s important and not important and what’s urgent and not urgent, and the matrix consists of a square divided into four squares: 1) Urgent/Important, 2) Not Urgent/Important, 3) Urgent/Not Important, and 4) Not Urgent/Not Important:

Square 1: Urgent and Important Tasks

The tasks that are found in square 1 of the matrix can be considered to be both urgent and important.

Crises, problems, or deadlines often require immediate attention. For example:

Certain emails (could be a job offer etc.), tax deadline, you get a call from your child’s school saying you need to come in for a meeting about his behaviour, wife goes into labour etc.

So many of the tasks that fall into this area of the matrix can be made more efficient or eliminated outright. with some planning.

Let’s say your property has needed maintenance but has been left to rot. Instead of allowing it to fall apart, agree a pre-emptive schedule of maintenance works at various points in the year.

You’ll never be able to eliminate urgent and important tasks completely, but you can save yourself a great deal of stress by filtering some into square 2.

Square 2: Not Urgent but Important Tasks

The square 2 tasks won’t necessarily have an urgent deadline, however, there will be some that go a long way towards personal and professional goal achievement. For example:

Studying, family time, exercising, weekly and longer-term planning, reading and meditating.

Ideally we should be looking to spend as much time on tasks/requirements from square 2 as possible.

However, if you don’t have any idea what matters most to you, it’s clear that you won’t have a grasp on what things you should be spending your time on.

Because those tasks in square 2 aren’t always pressing, they’re forever on the back burner which perpetuates a cycle where all we ever take care of are the most urgent things.

Square 3: Urgent and Not Important Tasks

Square 3 tasks require our attention now (so are therefore urgent), but they don’t help us in achieving our personal and professional goals (not important). For example:

Phone calls, text messages, emails etc

Spending time on square 3 tasks can often feel important particularly if you’re helping someone out, but they’re only important to others and will stop you from dealing with tasks in square 1.

You’ll end up believing a lot is being done when actually you’ve accomplished very little.

If you are a person that wants to constantly please others at your own expense, say no to things and become more assertive.

Square 4: Not Urgent and Not Important Tasks

Square 4 is the least of your worries as these tasks are neither urgent nor important. For example:

Watching TV, playing video games, scrolling through social media

Think about how much time you spend doing any of the above.

Whilst it’s important to do some of them, for instance at the end of a particularly challenging day when you brain needs to ‘switch off’ for a bit, try to only spend a very limited amount of time on them.

Spend More Time on Important Tasks

The ability to distinguish between what’s important and what’s urgent is an essential skill to have.

By investing your time in square 2’s planning/organising activities, you can prevent or even eliminate many of the problems of square 1, balance the requests of square 3 with your own needs, and truly enjoy the veg-outs of square 4.

By making square 2 tasks your top priority, no matter the emergency, annoyance, or deadline you’re hit with, you’ll have the mental, emotional, and physical capability to deal with things affectively.

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