How General Eisenhower can liberate you from to-do list tyranny

The US President's decision matrix is an essential weapon in your productivity arsenal.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 08 Aug 2019
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Your Career

Dwight D Eisenhower: supreme commander of the Allied forces in Europe during World War II, 34th President of the United States and, if you’re not familiar with his decision matrix, your new best friend.

Long before management consultancies made the humble matrix their stock in trade, Eisenhower used the format to create one of the most powerful productivity tools of the 20th century, later popularised by Stephen Covey (of 7 Habits of Highly Successful People fame), Roger Merrill and Rebecca Merrill in the book First Things First.

Take your linear to do list, and rate all the items on their importance (on the simplest level, ‘important’ or ‘not important’) and urgency. Then, plot these on a matrix with urgency on the x-axis and importance on the y.

An Eisenhower decision matrix, as adapted by Stephen Covey in First Things First

The items in each bucket warrant a different response. Urgent and important tasks, unsurprisingly, need doing now (e.g. your factory is burning down; call the fire brigade).

Urgent but not important tasks – think booking a hotel or clearing low priority emails – are best delegated if possible, while tasks that are neither important nor urgent should be deleted forthwith.

Important but not urgent tasks need to be scheduled. An example might be training, planning, following up a promising long-term partnership proposal or taking time to reflect on your business instead of fighting fires.

It is the items in this quadrant that Eisenhower said should take up most of your time, particularly as he regarded genuinely vital yet immediate tasks to be rare: "I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent." That means actually committing to do the tasks you schedule – it won’t work if you keep kicking the can down the road.

It doesn’t sound revolutionary, but the Eisenhower matrix explicitly recognises that more tasks confront us in our work lives, and particularly in positions of leadership, than we are humanly able to tick off.

The liberation comes from knowing it’s okay not to complete them all, so long as you get the most vital ones done.

The challenge lies in being able to determine what is important and what isn’t, which is where Covey elaborated on Eisenhower’s technique, asking to which of your long-term goals a given task contributes. If you can’t think of one, the chances are it isn’t that important.

Main image: Public Domain

Body image: Davidjcmorris/Wikimedia Commons (Creative Commons)

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