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Digging into the Eisenhower matrix and the transitions within.

The Eisenhower Matrix, or the Urgent-Important Matrix, is a well-known prioritization tool. People use the matrix, like the grid below, to bring structure to both work and life; what I’m interested in is how people shift between the areas of the 2x2 grid.

The matrix helps overwhelmed individuals sort and prioritize tasks. The formal name, The Eisenhower Matrix, comes from a Dwight D. Eisenhower quote:

“I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”

This matrix is crucial when projects become bigger and longer than initially forecast (which seems to happen all-too-often). To-do lists pile up. Deadlines get pushed, and every day is a scramble to put out new fires. The matrix brings a sense of organization and an attempt at calm.

In life, we wake up knowing our priorities. “Drink coffee” falls into the urgent and important category for most people. It needs to be done — for ourselves and for others who might interact with us. Then the workday starts, and we begin sifting through emails and meetings that fall into the “Urgent, Important” categories. It's possible to sit in this quadrant all day thinking "I'm saving the company by doing this. Without me things would fall apart."

Maybe a slight exaggeration there, but around mid-morning we lose some steam and shift to those “Urgent, Not Important” tasks. On a good day, there is time in the morning or afternoon for deep, uninterrupted work that categorizes as "Urgent, Important." This time spent in the top-left portion is what many would consider the productive time of day.

Each day brings new challenges, in work and in life. As the obstacles come into focus and we begin to see new tasks or challenges, we must choose: how important and urgent are these?

This choice can have an effect, and the reaction is vitally important. Do we calmly assign these new challenges a bucket? Can we continue the work in front of us or has this new task sent us into a frenzied state?

I offer two examples.

Leaving for work, you walk outside to the car thinking about what you’ll have to do today. There are “Important, Urgent” tasks are on your mind until you get to your car and see a flat tire. &%*$! You are drawn from your current state of mind to deal with a brand new “Important, Urgent” task at hand! It requires a quick reprioritization to reshuffle before you can move on with your day.

Similarly, an afternoon at work has you making design changes after a formal review. These are “Important, Not Urgent” changes. Suddenly there are parts from another project that have come back with issues. It needs immediate attention. Shifting to this new “Important, Urgent” task, you need to remember what the project and part details were, communicate with the fabricator, and understand the changes that need to be made. It presents a chance to calmly understand the new problem, or becoming overwhelmed, lashing out, and changing the trajectory of the rest of the day for yourself and others.

Often the most exhausting parts of the day are the transitions between states.

Some companies have built-in slow periods when there is designated time to work on “Important, Not Urgent” tasks. These benefit the culture and longevity of the company, but can easily fall through the cracks. Good leaders will create a balance to focus on both the immediate needs and long-term goals of a department or company.

As individuals, we have a responsibility to work on the Important categories and not delay until everything is Urgent. It requires patience, organization, and big-picture thinking that will help any team accomplish goals.


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