Have you ever pondered on why you’re not getting to where you want to get to? You want to build a big successful business but it’s just not happening. You feel that you’re busy all the time, in fact, you probably never have a minute to spare. I bet that you’ve even tried all the time management techniques to improve your productivity.
One thing that you might not have tried is the Eisenhower matrix. I’m not talking about a tool to manage time but rather a discipline, and decision framework to manage ourselves and our own priorities and expectations.
The Eisenhower Matrix (also called the urgent-important matrix) as a method for productivity has been studied and put to use for many decades. And it’s something that the most successful business owners use intuitively.
Like most impactful tools it is, in essence, really simple. Consisting of just four quadrants it allows you to audit the tasks that you undertake on a regular basis and assess whether these are moving you towards where you want to be, i.e. whether they’re urgent or important.
Urgent vs Important: Work in the present or plan for the future?
As small business owners the vast majority of our time is spent on urgent matters, the ‘crisis du jour’, often it seems that we spend all our time running around putting out fires. Dealing with supplier problems, customer problems, staff problems, the list seems endless. Of course, while you’re spending all your time putting out fires you neglect important things like building a sustainable business.
Urgent is reactive
Urgent work demands our attention right away and must be completed within a specific time limit (typically a small duration). But urgent tasks are reactive and as such, they lack strategic direction. As a rule, they’re not addressing a specific goal but addressing immediate problems.
Of course, Important tasks become urgent in due course of time if delayed too much, not given proper attention, or carried out without real interest. Taking time to write performance reviews, avoiding difficult conversations, and preparing for a client presentation are all important tasks that can become urgent if we pretend to be too busy dealing with the urgent or procrastinate or delay purposefully in the hope of getting to it someday.
Important is proactive
Important tasks align with your ‘as the business owner’ mission and goals and have a large impact on their success. Important tasks require initiative and proactiveness. Strategic thinking, risk analysis, roadmap creation, brainstorming, talking to your people, and making sound decisions all require dedicated time to do quality work.
Urgency makes us make decisions or do work that massively impacts the future. You end up spending more time trying to fix problems that were caused due to poor rushed decisions or rushing urgent tasks to a mediocre completion. This tendency to attend to urgent tasks at the cost of important tasks leaves no time for important tasks.
It’s also addictive, people get addicted to attending to urgent tasks all the time rather than important tasks. This is probably due to the rush of adrenaline we get when we’re stressed.
4 Quadrants of the Eisenhower Matrix for building a better business.
The management guru Peter Drucker pointed out that the expression “time management” is something of a misnomer. We have a constant amount of time, no matter what we do (1440 minutes every day) the challenge we face is to manage ourselves. To be an effective manager of yourself, you must organise and execute around priorities.
Establishing your priorities is about understanding your mission and setting goals to achieve that mission.
To use the Eisenhower Matrix to build a better business you need to do two things:-
1. Establish what exactly your mission and goals are. (if you’ve not established your goals for 2024 then download our FREE 2024 Success blueprint here)
2. To audit your current activities to ensure they are in line with your mission and goals.
The ‘Eisenhower Matrix’ provides us with a framework that helps us to audit our current activities and ensure that we understand where we spend our time. Stephen Covey in his brilliant book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” gives an excellent overview of this. You can access our business book summaries here.
What do the 4 quadrants mean?
Urgent and Important:
Tasks in this quadrant are urgent and important, they really must be done now. Effectively they are crises that need resolving at utmost speed. The problem is that tasks or work produced here are low quality, as decisions and solutions are made in haste (due to time limitations).
While getting these tasks done provides instant gratification, this quadrant gets bigger and bigger until it consumes us leaving us drained and burnout without significant contribution to our goals. People who spend a lot of their time in this quadrant jump from one situation to the next fooling themselves into believing that they are being productive.
This quadrant is a bad one for business owners to spend the majority of their time in. It’s pretty much impossible to be strategic and do the necessary thinking when you’re in reactive mode all the time. Your aim really should be to reduce the time you spend in this quadrant to an absolute minimum. Typical activities that appear to be urgent and important include:-
- Production problems, if the production line stops for some reason or other it tends to be an urgent problem.
- Staffing issues, if some of your staff haven’t turned up for work then this could be a serious problem that needs immediate attention.
- Supplier issues, if a supplier lets you down then there is a temptation to jump on to it immediately.
- Customer issues, if your largest customer calls you up complaining you’ll likely respond straight away.
Of course, there are some issues that are genuinely urgent and important and need you to deal with them, family issues, such as your child being hurt and in A&E would require immediate attention and is not something you’d delegate.
Urgent but not Important:
Urgent but not important tasks are activities that require our attention now (urgent) but don’t move us towards achieving our goals or fulfilling our mission. Most of these tasks are interruptions from other people and often involve helping them meet their own goals and fulfil their priorities.
To separate important from not important requires careful examination, understanding, and setting your priorities. Here are some examples.
- Phone calls.
- Text messages.
- Most emails (some emails could be urgent and important).
- An employee who comes by your desk during your prime working time to ask a favour.
- Request from a former employee to write a letter of recommendation on their behalf (it’s probably important to them, but let’s face it, it’s probably not that important to you).
- Your partner drops by unannounced and wants your help with a chore.
Tasks in this quadrant are perfect candidates to be delegated, entrust your team with more responsibilities, and empower them to make independent decisions. Delegating work in this manner will not only free up your time to do work that requires careful planning (Important, not urgent) but also establish trust with your team members creating a win-win situation at work.
Once you get good at delegating you’ll find that most of the ‘Crisis du jour’ disappear as they are now handled by your staff.
Not Important or Urgent
Activities aren’t urgent and aren’t important. They’re what I like to call “dicking around” activities. These activities aren’t pressing nor do they help you achieve long-term goals or fulfill your mission. They’re primarily distractions.
Specific examples of Not Urgent and Not Important Tasks include:
- Watching TV
- Mindlessly surfing the web
- Playing video games
- Scrolling through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram
- Shopping sprees
I think if most of us did a time audit on ourselves, we’d find that we spend an inordinate amount of time on these activities. I’m sure most of us have those “I’m wasting my time” moments after we’ve spent hours surfing the web and realised we could have used that time more productively.
Realistically, I don’t think you should aim to totally eliminate these activities altogether from your life. We all need time to de-stress after a particularly hectic or busy day, randomly browsing the internet or watching a favourite TV show for a half-hour might be what the doctor would order.
Instead of aiming to completely rid yourself of ‘Not Important’ or ‘Urgent tasks’, try to only spend a very limited amount of time on them. 5% or less of your waking hours is a good goal.
Important, Not Urgent
Planning for the future is the most important activity that you as a business owner should be working on. While it’s not possible to completely avoid crisis, carefully planning work that aligns with long-term goals while taking risk and other factors into account will involve less crisis creating a self-perpetuating cycle that will free up more time to do forward-looking work.
Our natural tendency is to deal with the urgent while delaying important work. Spending more time on this activity will require exercising control as it will be the biggest driver in achieving significant results and creating value for the organisation and its people.
Here are some specific examples of Not Urgent but Important Tasks:
- Weekly planning both personal and business.
- Long-term business planning
- Family time
- Reading life-enriching books
- Taking a class to improve a skill
- Spending time with a rewarding hobby
- Spending quality time with your significant other
According to Stephen Covey, we should seek to spend most of our time on these activities, as they’re the ones that provide us lasting happiness, fulfilment, and success. Looking at this from a business growth perspective, most people are too busy putting out fires to focus on building a successful business.
Unfortunately, there are a couple of key challenges that keep us from investing enough time and energy into these tasks.
If you’ve never taken the time to set goals or establish a vision and mission for your business then obviously won’t know what things you should be spending your time on to reach those aims! Instead, you’ll latch on to whatever stimuli and to-dos are most urgent. This is called ‘Present Bias’.
Present bias is the tendency to rather settle for a smaller present reward than to wait for a larger future reward, in a trade-off situation. It describes the trend of overvaluing immediate rewards while putting less worth on long-term consequences.
Changing this takes willpower and self-discipline – qualities that don’t come naturally and must be actively cultivated and expressed.
Because these activities aren’t pressing for our attention, we typically keep them forever on the back burner of our lives and tell ourselves, “I’ll get to those things ‘someday’ after I’ve taken care of this urgent stuff.” We even put off figuring out what’s most important in life, which of course only perpetuates a cycle where all we ever take care of are the most urgent to-dos on our list.
But “someday” will never come; if you’re waiting to do the important stuff until your schedule clears up a little, trust me when I say that it won’t. You’ll always feel about as busy as you are now, and if anything, life just gets busier as you get older (at least until you retire).
To overcome the inherent present bias that prevents us from focusing on Important not urgent activities, we must live our lives intentionally and proactively. You can’t run your life in default mode. You have to consciously decide, “I’m going to make time for these things come hell or high water.”
Your next steps.
Start by auditing your daily activities. The ability to distinguish between what’s urgent and what’s truly important is an essential skill to have. When faced with a decision, stop and ask yourself, “Am I doing this because it’s important or am I doing it because it’s merely urgent? Is it taking me to where I want to be?”
To help you with this I have a worksheet. Print one out tonight and set aside 30 minutes for personal reflection. Make a list of the tasks you spend most of your time on and assign them to an appropriate quadrant in the matrix. Doing so will give you a rough idea of whether you’re spending time on activities that are actually important. You can download the worksheet here.
To ramp up your productivity have a look at our workshop “How to master your personal productivity. The Key To Getting Stuff Done (GSD). How to get more stuff done and beat the procrastination monster!”