I’ve been using the Eisenhower Quadrants of Productivity with my teams for many years now. You may also hear it called the “Eisenhower Decision Matrix” or the “Eisenhower Box”. It is a method that helps people understand the differences between “urgent” and “important” tasks. You can use it to create principles on how to best manage time as an individual or as a team.
Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th President of the United States, is quoted as saying, “What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.” Holding demanding roles like Commanding General in Europe during World War II and his two terms as President (1953-1961), he certainly had the need to figure out time management for the scores of people reporting to him. He found ways to reduce the unnecessary and focus efforts on what was truly important for his teams.
The Productivity Matrix
If you’ve been following my blog posts, you’ll know that intentionality is important to me. I love using the Eisenhower Quadrants of Productivity because it gives an easy way to think about tasks so that you can intentionally focus where you need to.
The graphic above shows the quadrants presented in a two-by-two grid where the Y-axis represents importance, and the X-axis represents urgency. You’ll notice that the top-left quadrant (Q1) is both urgent and important, the top-right quadrant (Q2) is important but not urgent, the bottom-left quadrant (Q3) is urgent but not important, and the bottom-right quadrant (Q4) is neither urgent nor important.
Interpretations – What Does it Mean?
There are several common interpretations of the quadrants of productivity. You’ll often see them labeled as Do Now (Q1), Schedule (Q2), Delegate (Q3), and Remove (Q4). Or some people prefer Reduce (Q1), Decide (Q2), Automate (Q3), and Delete (Q4). You may find other variations on it too. These may seem like subtle differences, but the language used and the interpretation can cause teams to prioritize differently.
My preferred interpretation is based on Eisenhower’s quote listed at the beginning of this article. It tells us that things that are urgent are seldom important. In the graphic above, I use Fire Fighting (Q1), Productive Time (Q2), Distraction (Q3), and Down Time (Q4).
I like to view Q1 and Q4 as both needing to reduce time and effort, which is why they are shown with just 5% of your recommended time on each. This may make you nervous about Q1 because it is also considered important. It screams for your attention. But my view is that fighting fires is a terrible place to spend a large amount of your time. Your attention is far too valuable to be chasing every urgency placed in front of you.
I view Q2 as the epitome of productivity and recommend 75% of your time be used here. The important things that are not urgent are where you’ll find prevention, innovation, experimentation, planning, and strategy. These are the things that can reduce or remove unwanted urgency. Q2 is where you’ll find competitive advantage.
That leaves Q3 where I recommend the remaining 15% of your time. This may seem odd given that it is defined as not important. Q1 is important but only receives 5% of your time. This is the difference between Q1 being unintentional urgency and Q3 being intentionally urgent on someone else’s behalf. I think it is worthwhile to help others if it isn’t stopping time on Q2 activities.
Q1 and Q3 are both urgent quadrants.
Q1 is also important, so it includes things like crisis management, triage, and production-down scenarios. These are things that cannot be ignored, they need to be fixed now.
Q3 is urgent but not important. This includes other people’s priorities or helping with things that perhaps should be done by someone else. Sometimes these tasks keep you from focusing on the things that are truly important.
Q1 and Q2 are both important quadrants.
Q1 is also urgent, but for those who view Q1 as items to do first, I’d argue that you’ll find far too many hours being spent fighting fires. Consider that Q1’s importance only comes from its urgency. There will always be a new top priority that gets wedged in under the guise of urgency. The urgent becomes detrimental if it rules for too long.
Q2 is not urgent, and some view it simply as tasks to be scheduled. I disagree. I view Q2 as the area you should intentionally spend the most time. Its lack of urgency doesn’t reduce its value. In my experience, Q2 is the only quadrant that is truly important. You must spend time in Q2 to find ways to reduce Q1 and Q3 activity.
Finding Optimal Productivity
You can’t avoid the urgent, but you can break the vicious cycle. Intentionality toward your use of these productivity quadrants can help. Use the matrix here to help yourself identify what’s truly important and make sure you regularly put time toward them.
If you find yourself endlessly fighting fires in Q1, realize that you need to make some changes and get to a better place. Urgency should be the exception rather than the rule. You can use the 6 Areas that Stall Organizational Change to help identify what changes are needed to release the pressure and allow you to focus on quality Q2 time.
We haven’t talked much about Q4, which is neither important nor urgent. Some models suggest that you dispose of the time that falls here, getting as close to zero as possible. Some view it as leisure time or where procrastination lives. I think there is value in Q4 time to destress or to bond with others. In my view, it has its benefits, but you still want to intentionally control your time spent here.
You need to clearly see the differences between urgency and importance. For a business, is it better to fix every request as quickly as you can? Or is it better to explore strategy, experiment, and innovate?
These concepts can apply to your personal life too. You can easily get lost in the day-to-day thinking that you just need to get this done and tomorrow you’ll think long-term. But oftentimes you lose track of tomorrow. You get things done, but not the right things.
If you find yourself stuck with endless urgency, it may be the perfect time to reach out to your Perficient account manager for some extra help or use our contact form to begin a conversation to help get you to the important goals.