Eisenhower matrix in personal projects—what does urgent but not important mean?

Something that I’ve been playing around with for the last few months in my to do app of choice, Todoist, is seeing if I find value in using the Eisenhower matrix to help me prioritise tasks.

But I have encountered a stumbling block when I consider this for use in a personal context: what do I with the “Delegate” label (urgent but not important)?

Eisenhower matrix

“Who can define for us with accuracy the difference between the long and short term”, former US president Dwight D. Eisenhower said during a speech in 1961. “Especially whenever our affairs seem to be in crisis, we are almost compelled to give our first attention to the urgent present rather than to the important future.”

Oh, how true that can be—those moments when our days get consumed by the urgent rather than the important, with tasks that address the immediate concerns rather than long-term goals.

To address that, Eisenhower created his eponymous matrix as a lightweight tool for helping make decisions that balanced immediate need with long-term consequences.

The Eisenhower matrix is usually presented as a two-by-two grid with two axes: urgency vs importance, like this.

and summarised as:

  • Do it first (urgent and important)
  • Schedule it (not urgent but important)
  • Delegate it (urgent but not important)
  • Delete it (not urgent and not important)

I have often found each of these options useful when in a leadership position within a team. But recently I have been wondering, what if you are working on your own? In that context, “Delegate it” doesn’t really make sense as a label. If I am working on my own, I have no-one to pass on these urgent but not important tasks to.

Urgent but not important

It is worth bearing in mind what ‘important’ means in this context. It refers to the importance of a task when compared against a particular set of goals.

I’ve been adopting the 12 Week Year approach for the last few years by setting myself goals that last twelve weeks. So, in theory, anything that lands on my task list I really ought to consider against those goals: does this task advance one of my primary goals this quarter?

If it doesn’t then I don’t regard it as important.

Bear in mind that I always include my general life admin as one of my primary goals each quarter. It’s not just about fun web or writing projects. So if I get an urgent email from my landlord or a letter from the council that I need to respond to within a short deadline that immediately gets classed as important.

But what about everything else? What happens to those items that need to be completed quickly but don’t advance my life admin or quarterly projects? That is what I have been pondering for the last few weeks. I can’t delegate them to someone else, so what do I label these tasks?

What kind of tasks?

I’ve also been trying to identify the types of tasks that fall into this category.

As we’ve established, these are not important to the completion of my general life admin or quarterly projects but they have a short deadline, they are urgent to someone. And that is where I have been directing my focus in trying to work this out.

If these tasks are urgent but not important to my goals then presumably they are important to someone else’s goals and so I have become a dependency on someone else’s backlog. These tasks might include requests via email for advice about something they think I know about—I have a few of these in my inbox just now: someone asking for advice about Microsoft Money or Psion computers, another few emails requesting advice about their websites, and someone asking if I can add a paid-for link on my blog (no!).

Alternative labels

As I have been exploring this question, I’ve jotted down the following possible labels:

  • Push back
  • Question this
  • Avoid this
  • External priority
  • External dependency
  • Automate

I think the ‘automate’ option is interesting because it has made me wonder if there are any tasks that can be automated, perhaps using something like If This Then That (IFTTT) or Zapier. Or if I can write blog posts to address the most common enquiries that I get (usually about Microsoft Money or Psion computers) and point people to those posts, again maybe by sending them an automated email when particular keywords are identified in the email subject. It’s worth considering.

In the meantime, I am leaning towards “External priority” as a suitable label.

Has anyone else out there already solved this question for themselves? How do you tackle this issue? What label do you use?

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Gareth Saunders

I’m Gareth J M Saunders, 52 years old, 6′ 4″, father of 3 boys (including twins). Enneagram type FOUR and introvert (INFP), I am a non-stipendiary priest in the Scottish Episcopal Church, I sing with the NYCGB alumni choir, play guitar, play mahjong, write, draw and laugh… Scrum master at Safeguard Global; latterly at Sky and Vision/Cegedim. Former web architect and agile project manager at the University of St Andrews and previously warden at Agnes Blackadder Hall.

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