“What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.” — Dwight D. Eisenhower
Do you sometimes feel overwhelmed and even discouraged when despite your best effort you see that your to-do list just keeps getting longer and longer?
You just can’t win and you are not quite sure what to do. E-mails are pouring in and deadlines are approaching fast and just when you think you might after all be able to get a grip on the situation, unless a crisis occur, well, a crisis occur. At least what is presented to you as a crisis. The question though is whether everything in your list is equally urgent and equally important. Probably not!
Being able to distinguish what is urgent and what is important is the first and most crucial step to be able to deal with multiple and sometimes conflicting priorities.
You work with a team and you have a number of available hours in a day and days in a week. Tasks can be delegated or planned accordingly and things will get done at the right time and by the right person without you running around like a headless chicken.
Work smart, don’t work hard!
Trying to do everything at the same time, working extra hours, taking on all kinds of tasks indistinctly, indicates that you are working hard. It might also mean that at the end of the day you have probably done a lot and extinguished a lot of fires but you have experienced very little sense of accomplishment.
Dealing with each situation in the proper manner instead is a way to work smart. You will get more tasks completed, hit more deadlines, deliver better quality and feel way less stressed than you did.
How do you do that? Like I mentioned, the key is in distinguishing between important items and urgent items.
Some of the things you need to deal with may be very urgent but not very important and consequently there may be items that are very important but not urgent.
Define Urgent, Define Important
In order to define whether something is urgent you just have to look at the deadline. If you have a deadline within the next 30 minutes you are probably looking at something urgent. Or, is it? Unless we are talking about a legal or a medical deadline for instance, you can always try to negotiate the actual deadline. The easiest way to do this is by asking the requester:”what is the latest you will need this by?” or “is it a possibility to postpone this by [x amount of time]?”
Often you will be able to negotiate a deadline and in that case you just bought yourself some time.
If that is not the case then your non-negotiable 30 minutes deadline definitely falls in the urgent items.
Now, how do you define if something is important or not?
The importance of an item you need to deal with it is not determined by the clock but by the purpose it serves and the value it has. In a typical office environment, important items are for instance those in line with strategic objectives and priorities. If a deliverable is necessary to enable the company strategy then that is an important item. If more items appear to be important and you can’t decide which is more important than the other then you can discuss this with your manager or with your team according to the situation. ideally you would be looking at the benefit this important item can bring or at the consequences of not completing this task.
The Eisenhower Decision Matrix
Once you have a clear idea of which urgent items you are dealing with and which important items and how urgent and important these are, you can then use a simple matrix to decide what to do.
The two axis matrix here below is known as an “Eisenhower Box” or “Eisenhower Decision Matrix”. Items are placed in according quadrants that will indicate how to handle tasks.
Important and urgent items are dealt with personally and immediately.
Important but not urgent items are dealt with personally.
Urgent but not important items are delegated.
Items that are neither urgent nor important can either wait or can be dropped.
Being able to delegate is a necessary part of a manager’s skill set. In future posts I will tell how to delegate the right tasks to the right people.
In the meantime, as simple and as intuitive as this matrix is, you now have a tool to help you prioritize and deal with multiple conflicting priorities effectively.