We live and work in a world of constant, competing demands.

Even those of us who don’t have the responsibilities of providing for a family and raising children can feel overwhelmed by the need to balance work and life — getting stuff done, maintaining our energy levels, exercising, looking after our relationships, taking time off, and so on.

So, how do we get organized, and become productive without succumbing to overwork? For many, their first instinct is to create a to-do list. This is a great first step – but we can go further.

If you’re someone who always has too much to do, and who periodically gets stressed out because they’ve constantly got projects due yesterday, then this article will tell you how to create a better system for managing your tasks.

The Eisenhower Principle

So, how can you improve your life, increase your free time, and still get more done? The answer: learn to distinguish between importance and urgency.

U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower famously made this distinction, stating: “What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.”

First, let’s define what we mean by each term.

  • Importance is a measure of how valuable something is. This is ultimately a personal judgement: what is very important to someone else might be very unimportant to you. For example, respond to all my emails might be very important for an administrator, but very unimportant for a doctor.

  • Urgency is a measure of how soon something needs to be done. Assuming that the deadline for a task is fixed, this is ultimately an objective judgement: what is due tomorrow is more urgent than what is due in a week. For example, write the conference paper for a week tomorrow is a less urgent task than write the presentation for tomorrow’s client meeting.

One of the reasons we tend to feel overwhelmed by our tasks is that we naturally respond to urgency more readily than we respond to importance. Too often, we’re working under extreme time pressure to complete relatively unimportant tasks, while leaving the important stuff to founder. To make matters worse, when we work this way, we don’t get much sense of achievement from the things we complete, because they’re generally not that important.

To be absolutely clear: this approach makes no sense.

Conventional applications of the Eisenhower Principle

Back in 1989, self-help guru Stephen Covey published the famous 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. One of these was an adaptation of the Eisenhower Principle, whereby each task is placed into one of four categories:

  • Important and urgent
  • Important but not urgent
  • Not important but urgent
  • Not important and not urgent

According to Covey’s system, we should then tackle the tasks in that order – i.e., always doing the important stuff before the unimportant stuff, regardless of urgency.

Over the past 30 years, all kinds of organisations and sole traders have taught Covey's model through management training programs. However, the system does have one practical weakness: it implies that a task’s urgency is always less of a consideration than its importance.

However, the problem for most of us is that we treat urgency as the only consideration. It’s not that we need to stop valuing deadlines – it’s that we need to stop valuing deadlines at all costs, and start paying due attention to the intrinsic importance of the tasks we’re faced with.

A new application of the Eisenhower Principle

A few years ago, when I was working as a project manager, I developed a variation on this system which introduces more granularity into the list, providing a more accurate guide on what order to tackle a long list of tasks (it works particularly well for to-do lists of over 100 items).

Also, rather than prioritising important tasks at all times, it recognizes that urgency is itself a form of value, and weights it equally with importance.

Here’s how it works.

Start with your flat list of tasks. Create three columns next to the list. Let the first column be “importance”, let the second one be “urgency”, and let the third one be “priority”.

Step 1

First, go through and rate each task from 1 to 5 for importance. 1 is most important, and 5 is not important at all. Remember what importance isn’t. A task doesn’t become important just because it becomes urgent: it has the same importance regardless of when it is due.

Essentially, what we are asking when rating importance is this: which task would matter the least if it didn’t get done at all? Here’s an example:

Step 2

Next, go down the list again and rate for urgency, again using 1 to 5: 1 is most urgent, and 5 is least urgent. This is, by definition, a rating of how urgent these tasks are right now: depending on the kind of work you do, you might need to re-score for urgency weekly, daily, or maybe even twice daily. But once you’ve got the hang of it, it’s a very fast exercise.

Step 3

Finally – here’s the crucial bit – fill out the third column by multiplying the importance and urgency scores together. In the resulting list, you’ll have values ranging from 1 to 25. Simply do the lowest numbered items first!

Take control of your tasks

The advantage of this more granular system is that it recognizes that, in the real world, there is sometimes a need to do urgent tasks even when they’re not that important. Sometimes deadlines are non-negotiable, regardless of what we think of the work at hand.

This is particularly true when you are primarily accountable to the expectations of someone else (e.g. your boss, or a client) rather than solely to your own assessment of how valuable a task or project is.

In the version above, importance and urgency are given equal weighting, which is intended as an improvement on the reactive, urgency-dominated way in which most of us have learned to work. However, you could also choose to weight them differently.

“Hang on,” you might say, “at this rate I will never got to the stuff rated 20 or 25!”

Well, exactly. But surely that's better than never getting to the important stuff – which is how many of us spend our days, leading us too often into exhausting and unfulfilling patterns of work. There is another way! 

Drowning in deadlines?

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author avatar

Andrew Wilshere


Designer, Writer, and Mentor

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