T. Kearny Vertner, III
The Eisenhower Box
"What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important." - President Dwight D. Eisenhower
President Dwight D. Eisenhower was an incredibly productive man. Over the course of his life, in addition to serving two terms as the 34th President of our country, he also served as General of the Army (the rare five-star general) and Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II. He helped foster programs like the Interstate highway System, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (better known as DARPA and the parents of the modern internet), and the National Aerospace Agency (NASA). Nobody gets work like that done without developing a method for task prioritization. This slice of his legacy is the delightfully simple Eisenhower Box (or Eisenhower Matrix, if you prefer).
How the Eisenhower Box Makes Us More Productive
Simply put, consider each task you take on (or receive) throughout your day. With very little thought, you can easily bin it in one of four categories:
Urgent-Important. Do this now. Respond to that phone call from a teammate.
Not Urgent-Important. Decide a time to do this. Put it on your calendar. It needs to get done by you, but not now.
Urgent-Not Important. Delegate these tasks if possible. Your time is valuable and maybe instead of spending an hour making travel arrangements, the travel agent's fee is worth it. Maybe that e-mail that has you on the CC line should be answered by your outstanding teammate that's on the To line.
Not Urgent-Not Important. Delete these tasks. These are the time-sinks that are sapping your productivity. This is the time you spend scrolling on social media, browsing link-sharing sites, picking through junk/mass e-mails, or watching television.
Most of us are pretty good at managing #1 and #2. The one that will snag all of us is #3, which is easily confused with #1. That's the part that will take intuition, practice, and failure. As you rise through the ranks, learn to trust and properly utilize your team and any administrative staff you may have. I've seen well-meaning leaders spend long hours learning how to perform administrative tasks when they have highly-competent (and often under-utilized) teammates focused on supporting you. Remember: one of the defining elements of an Urgent-Not Important task is that others can do it. A task is Important (both Urgent and Not Urgent) when only you can do it.
One important note on #4, the Not Urgent-Not Important tasks: these are not inherently bad or complete wastes of your time, they are merely distractions when you need to be productive. It's okay to leave time for them when you want to relax; just understand when they are interfering with your goals for the day. Constantly flipping between your work and social media means that your work will take much longer and you won't really enjoy seeing that picture of your friend's dog.
Practicing the Eisenhower Box
Because this is such an easy technique, there are a lot of ways to practice it. For the hands-on folks, you may prefer to set up a board divided into squares and write tasks on post-it notes as they come in. Those who keep journals may simply draw a big cross in the middle of the page and pencil in their tasks and notes accordingly. Others may simply use it as a mental triage when a task immediately comes across their desk. Do what works for you, your workflow, and your team! Like any other great management idea, don't force it on a team that isn't interested. Share it, but only so they can better understand your approach. Your teammates may already have techniques that work fine for them or they may decide they love Eisenhower Boxes and use them in ways you didn't even think of.
The Eisenhower Box can be an incredibly useful tool for task management. Like any tool, it takes practice. I've used it intermittently for years and every time I remember to use it, I notice an immediate improvement in the quality and efficiency of my work, and the earned leisure time as a result. Feel free to contact me below and let me know how you and your team have used the Eisenhower Box!