Regardless of what we do in life, our time is valuable– we only get so much. I often hear people say that there aren’t enough hours in the day to get their work done, or to pursue their passion project that keeps getting pushed to the back burner.
I’d like to share a tool that I think is useful for everyone, especially students preparing for post-secondary education: The Eisenhower matrix of productivity (1). The matrix (pictured below) is based on Dwight D. Eisenhower’s efficient decision-making abilities and his productive term as President of the United States from 1953-1961, in which time he implemented the interstate highway system and created NASA. On the most basic level, the model helps people determine what’s most important in their lives, identify priorities, set goals, and find a way to make time for those things.
The Eisenhower Box differentiates between important tasks (related to value-driven projects and lifestyle choices), and urgent tasks (time-sensitive issues). Not everything that is urgent is important, and not everything that is important is urgent. Think about what this means for a second. Our most important tasks– those that reflect our deeper values and goals– often get pushed to the back burner for urgent tasks that may or may not benefit us in any way. Eisenhower thought about his tasks in terms of the following categories and applied the rule below:
Few things are considered important and urgent. Examples might be a fire, medical emergency, certain phone calls, or a crying baby. Important, but not urgent tasks are the value-centered projects and tasks that we need to schedule time for, such as planning and implementing our goals, and practicing what we value (exercise would fit into this category). Sadly, most phone calls and interruptions would be considered not important, but urgent because of the way they arrive unexpectedly. Time wasters and busy work are considered not important and not urgent. Those are the things we need to drop entirely, and they’re different for everyone; stressful things that suck the life out of you also fit in this category. Also note that tasks in the important, but not urgent category can quickly move to the urgent category if ignored. Students who have neglected big projects can attest to this one– plan ahead so it doesn’t become an emergency!
We can use this matrix in a variety of contexts—in schools, the workplace, or for big-picture goals. The main thing to take away is that we need to schedule time for things that we deem important, and do it when we are at our most productive. My work day is generally divided between course-writing and development, communication with students and teachers, and meetings. If I were to plan my day according to urgent tasks alone (emails, phone calls, and meetings), I would never have time for course-writing since it’s the only task that doesn’t involve other people and their time demands. So, if I normally respond to emails from 7-9 am every morning, but I write best in the morning when I’m fresh, maybe I should dedicate that block of time to writing and then take a break at 9am to begin responding to emails. Unless response times to people is your most important task (ie. Your business is driven by speed, like the McDonald’s drive-through or a 24-hour help desk), emails should be able to wait 1-2 hours so you can work on important tasks at opportune times. I’m also lucky that I have the flexibility to start my work day at 7am so I can fit in one of my other passion projects: coaching kids and teens in an after school CrossFit program.
If one of your goals is to start your own business, dedicate an hour per day, or even two hours once per week to planning and organizing your venture. If you want to run a marathon, schedule time to train when you know you have the best chance of being successful. Unless you train best at night, it’s risky to push your most important task to the end of the day when it’s easy to back out or let a series of small, urgent tasks change your plans. The same thing applies to personal goals like spending more time with your family. Schedule regular blocks of time that work for everyone and then unplug from work or other distractions. It’s amazing how many urgent tasks suddenly disappear in the absence of technology.
Like starting a savings account, the sooner you can dedicate quality time to your passion projects, the better. The matrix is a simple way to get young people thinking about their time and priorities before they go off to college, or start careers. Learning to prioritize and balance various demands on our time is a lesson that never gets old, at any age.
1. The Eisenhower Matrix was largely popularized in Stephen Covey’s book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. Free Press, 2004. I highly recommend reading it!