Generally, humans tend to prioritise tasks they perceive as urgent over non-urgent tasks, although the reward for the non-urgent task may be greater. In other words, urgency tends to be prioritised over importance in tasks.
For example, team chats and emails seem to mean something urgent to an employee as there is always someone waiting for a response. However, the most important goals are often viewed more distantly, i.e. there seem to be no immediate consequences if they are postponed to another time.
Studies show that people who perceive themselves as busy are more likely to have a tendency to prioritise urgency over importance, i.e. those who feel they have little time are more likely to waste it and not organise themselves well. Thus, in order for a company’s employees or an individual to be more productive on a day-to-day basis, they must be able to prioritise their attention on urgent and important tasks in order to manage their time properly.
Therefore, understanding the fundamental difference between urgent and important tasks is the starting point for being more productive and disciplined, having the ability to organise tasks and time well, and thus being the key to long-term success. The Eisenhower matrix facilitates this goal of organising and managing functions and tasks.
This Eisenhower matrix is a framework for classifying tasks into urgent and non-urgent, as well as important and not important, helping the user to decide which task has priority according to the quadrant where it is available.
For example, the user or employee can use his or her 2-4 most productive hours to do the most important work. By setting aside that time, the person can dedicate himself to that task in a continuous and concentrated manner. Also, time can be set aside for reviewing communication applications, rather than responding to emails or messages as they arrive, i.e. asynchronous communication should be adopted. Alternatively, inbox management tools can be employed that batch incoming mail and deliver it at time intervals or at specific times of the day. The last key aspect is to set a deadline for important tasks.
The Eisenhower matrix is based on the Pareto principle, which states that 80% of the results can be achieved with 20% of the efforts. However, most employees in a company spend 80% of their time doing tasks that only lead to 20% of the expected results.
The US General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was President of the United States, placed emphasis on improving his time management during the war. He developed a time management method to rank tasks according to their importance and urgency. Finally, the writer Stephen Covey popularised Eisenhower’s way of thinking by using a 4-quadrant matrix to determine the urgency of tasks.
The matrix is therefore defined as a tool for structuring and understanding the long-term impact of daily tasks, prioritising them to make an employee’s day more effective, not just productive. This method aims to help visualise the weekly daily tasks in a matrix of urgent versus important tasks. Tasks and projects will be divided into 4 main quadrants:
In the following, a breakdown of what each quadrant consists of will be given, as each task falls into a quadrant based on its importance and relevance. In turn, key distinctions will be made to distinguish between urgent and non-urgent tasks with respect to important and unimportant tasks, as this distinction is sometimes not clear, and thus facilitates the matrix user to spend their time more effectively.
Firstly, urgent tasks are those that require immediate action and attention. For example, these may be problems that need to be solved on the spot as they may have an impact on the rest of your working day if they are not solved immediately, i.e. they have serious consequences if the task is not executed. Such tasks are unavoidable and cannot be left to the last minute.
Secondly, important tasks are those that have a long-term impact on the user’s productivity and goals. Such tasks require long-term focus and extensive planning and scheduling, always accompanied by proper preparation and action. When an employee is able to focus on the important tasks, he or she directs his or her attention to what is of real value instead of simply doing trivial tasks. In this way, their daily work adds to the long-term impact on their productivity and goals.
Thirdly, tasks that are neither urgent nor important are much easier to identify on a day-to-day basis, as they do not require immediate attention, but still carry some weight in the long-term progression towards productivity.
Thus, non-urgent tasks are those tasks that are of relative importance to goals and productivity, but do not require immediate action. They may not have a deadline for completion, but they do have an impact on long-term goals. They can usually be transferred to someone else to perform.
Similarly, unimportant tasks are those that generally take up the employee’s time and should be eliminated from day-to-day work, as they decrease productivity and hinder long-term success.
A simple example of how this matrix can be organised is when three categories are established: the urgency of the tasks, the satisfaction of the tasks and the tasks that bring personal joy.
In a random case, producing a report with a deadline tomorrow, this task is urgent. On the other hand, completing an ideal client profile is important because it allows to go out and look for such clients, which generates satisfaction and allows to advance the employee’s goals.
Finally, arranging the photos of a holiday trip the employee took a few years ago will only bring joy, but will not bring professional satisfaction or productivity in their daily tasks.
There are a multitude of applications for organising tasks using this type of matrix, seeking to streamline work and facilitate decision-making. KanBo, for example, has created a dashboard template dedicated to the matrix, which goes one step further in the capabilities of the application, while retaining its basic principles. This application highlights the importance of the Eisenhower matrix in the digital age.
In KanBo, the matrix has four quadrants where tasks can be placed, the user is provided with four lists in the template that correspond to the quadrants, so adding a task to the list is the same as adding a task to a quadrant of the matrix.
In addition, there is no limit to the number of tasks that can be added to the matrix. Unlike the analogue version, KanBo contains unlimited task entries, where the only limitation is its execution capacity. These lists representing the quadrants have a header, which shows the number of tasks in each list and the percentage of work performed in each quadrant.
The advantage of this type of application is that the information is updated in real time and speeds up decision-making and sharpens the prioritisation skills of any company.
In short, the use of this simple matrix ensures greater productivity in the long term by classifying tasks into: important and urgent; important but not urgent; urgent but not important; and neither important nor urgent.
Following this methodology helps the employee to improve time management, to prioritise in a clear and well-defined way allowing the most important projects to be completed first. Therefore, this model is very suitable for people who may be in management positions as their time is limited and this method allows them to delegate less important tasks to their employees.
However, it should be noted that in this model it can be difficult to assess the importance of a task correctly. Thus, urgency is usually determined by the deadline for the delivery of each task.