20 August 2018

Urgent vs. Important: How to get the best ROI out of your To-Do List

How many of us start our days with the intention to be as efficient and productive as possible? You want to maximize your time management and move as many tasks as you can from “To-Do” to “Completed”. Your day starts with motivation and focus. Between dealing with the tasks from the previous week that you have yet to accomplish as well as juggling more tasks as they are assigned, your day can quickly spiral out of control.

It may feel like every day there are more ¨fires¨ that need to be ¨extinguished¨.

You may feel that you are are losing control of your day and week, maybe even your mind and your motivation. So, how do you get everything done and make everyone happy? Well, unfortunately, you can’t make everyone happy, but you can implement a new system to help you assess, categorize and act on tasks in a more efficient and productive manner. That should at least make you happier.

Urgent vs Important: Improving your time management with The Eisenhower Decision Matrix

The first step to taking control of your workday is to determine what is urgent and what is important. The Eisenhower Decision Matrix, popularized in the best-selling book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen Covey, was developed by The 34th U.S. President and 5-Star General, Dwight D. Eisenhower. Before becoming President, Eisenhower led the Allied Forces to victory in WWII and became the first Supreme Commander of NATO. As President, Alaska and Hawaii became States, he built the federal interstate system and created NASA. Eisenhower was accustomed to enormous responsibility and accomplishing great tasks, but how did he do it? How did he determine which tasks to prioritize in order to accomplish his goals? Needless to say, Eisenhower knew a thing or two about using time efficiently and effectively and he explained his decision-making process with the help of a matrix.

Applying the Eisenhower Matrix to your Work (and personal) Life

Complete Eisenhower Matrix grid

The matrix is quite simple: 4 boxes divided by X and Y axes. The X-axis represents the range from urgent to not urgent and the Y-axis represents the range from not important to important.

The first quadrant labeled “important and urgent” with the directive “do now”. The second quadrant labeled “important and not urgent” with the directive “do later”. The third quadrant labeled “not important and urgent” with the directive “delegate”. The fourth quadrant labeled “not important and not urgent” with the directive “eliminate”.

Eisenhower’s principle requires you to consider what tasks are deemed worthy of your time and are in alignment with your goals by categorizing the tasks into urgent tasks and important tasks. Putting the tasks into specific quadrants helps to clarify your priorities and improve your time management. Implementing the assigned directive sifts through distractions and directs attention towards those tasks that have the highest ROI (return on investment) of your time, attention and effort.

What are “urgent” tasks? Urgent tasks are tasks that require immediate attention. Usually the consequences of not completing these tasks are immediate. Oftentimes these tasks are being completed in the pursuit of someone else’s goals or needs.

What are “important” tasks? Important tasks are tasks that are in alignment with either your professional or personal goals. These are tasks that you want to complete in the pursuit of your own dreams or needs.

According to Eisenhower, you should spend most of your time in quadrant two: items that are deemed NOT urgent, but important. In this way, you can move away from unimportant, urgent (which can be timesucks without a correlative ROI) tasks and focus on tasks that will help you grow your business, career or achieve your dreams.

Put it in Action

LIST all of the things that you have to do throughout your work day and include your personal time too. In this day and age there is rarely a hard separation between personal time and work time (thanks to email and smartphones), so list all of your daily undertakings.

CATEGORIZE each activity into one of 4 quadrants:

Urgent and Important, DO now
1) IMPORTANT AND URGENT– Typically there are 2 situations that fall into this category: unforeseeable circumstances and tasks caused by procrastination. For either situation, utilizing time management can help to effectively handle these types of tasks. Customer crises and staff issues are also examples. Building in time to deal with important and urgent tasks throughout your day helps you to take control of your day by assigning designated time to resolve these tasks (if possible) instead of having these tasks interrupt and derail portions of the day.

For example, if a company is working on Eastern Standard time and has clients working on Pacific Standard time, carving out 1 hour at 12:00 pm EST (9:00 am PST) to address Important and Urgent tasks schedules time to “firefight” any tasks that may come up at the start of the clients’ work day and need immediate solutions.

Urgent and not important, do later

2) IMPORTANT BUT NOT URGENT– These are the tasks that help to progress your personal and/or professional goals. Networking, relationship building and designing systems or strategies are examples. Schedule these tasks each day, so they don’t become important and urgent (aka Do NOT procrastinate). This will lead to a feeling of accomplishment and progression each day.

not urgent yet important, delegate

3) URGENT BUT NOT IMPORTANT– These are tasks that prevent you from accomplishing your goals. Trivial requests from others and misdirected emails are examples. They are the ones that you may be “firefighting” daily. Determine whether you can reschedule them or if you should delegate these tasks. Again this is a situation where time management and scheduling specific time to address these tasks will give you control over your time and day while also creating boundaries (by giving others a specific time they can address you or expect a response from you).

Not urgent and not important, eliminate

4) NOT URGENT AND NOT IMPORTANT – These are the tasks to be avoided at all costs. Gossip, excessive chit-chat, and aimless internet surfing are examples. These tasks are timesucks and don’t contribute to your professional or personal goals. This is where you start practicing “No” as a complete sentence. You may want to explain why these tasks are not a priority and why you will not be engaging in them as a way to “draw a line in the sand” so that others can understand your boundaries and will know not to bother you with such trivialities.


Using the Eisenhower Decision Matrix can relieve the burdensome feeling that you have too much to do and not enough time to do it. It can also alleviate the frustration of trying to decide which item to complete first when you feel you have so many important items. It is also one of the simplest time management systems and can work whether your workflow is totally digital or with pen and paper. Remember a quote often ascribed to Eisenhower: “What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important¨.

Try it out, and adjust as needed but keep the basic principles as Eisenhower had them. If you have further questions you can always tweet us to have your questions answered.

Christine J.

Christine Job is an American business development consultant specializing in solopreneurs and micro businesses. She predominantly works with Creatives and wellness professionals. Christine currently resides in Barcelona, Spain.