Have you ever looked back on a super busy week only to realize you’ve hardly made progress on your long-term goals? Although you’ve barely come up for air putting out little fires everywhere, got all those last-minute requests done for your boss, and even made it to every meeting on your calendar – you haven’t gotten closer to where you really want to be.
The problem isn’t that you’re not working hard enough, but rather that you’re working too hard on the wrong things. Even when you’re diligently chipping away at your to-do list every day – if you’re not effectively prioritizing your most important tasks, you’re ultimately undermining your performance in the long run. Worse yet, the work and personal emergencies you’ve been attending to probably don’t even align with the list of values you’d like to prioritize.
Author Stephen R. Covey highlighted this issue in the bestseller The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, reflecting, "most of us spend too much time on what is urgent and not enough time on what is important”.
But how are you supposed to know what is urgent and what is important when everything feels really important all the time? In this blog post we’re going to break down this ‘urgency trap’ and share 5 tips on how you can use the Eisenhower Matrix to better align your time with your priorities every week (free template included!).
Avoiding the urgency trap
If you’ve ever seen a new email in your inbox with a subject line that included words like URGENT, IMMEDIATELY, ASAP, SOS, or NOW (with any amount of caps or exclamation points) – you probably know the panicky feeling that quickly follows. In fact, you might usually drop whatever you’re doing to handle it right away because it’s obviously super important.
Or is it?
A 2018 study found that when people are deciding what tasks to work on, they will consistently prioritize urgent tasks over important tasks – even when the urgent task offers much less of a reward. This psychological phenomenon is called the Mere Urgency Effect and suggests that people will pick tasks with a short completion window because they provide more immediate payoff, instead of prioritizing important tasks with much larger reward that would take longer to complete.
But exactly what is the difference between urgent and important tasks?
Difference between urgent vs. important tasks:
- Urgent: Tasks or activities that are time-sensitive and require immediate attention to avoid immediate consequences. Urgent activities typically support others in achieving their goals.
- Important: Tasks or activities that support strategic progress towards your personal and/or professional long-term goals. Important tasks might not be time-sensitive or have a deadline.
The thing is, the human brain has a hard time telling the difference between the two (which is why urgent tasks often feel important in the moment). Also known as the urgency trap, urgency effect, or urgency principle – this tendency actually helps explain why many professionals inherently struggle with time management.
Consider urgency like a set of blinders that keep you nearsighted. They demand immediate attention and block your wider view of more important priorities that offer greater rewards down the line. Though you might be inclined to try and finish urgent tasks first and then work on important tasks ‘later’ – this cycle ultimately results in important tasks constantly getting set aside to accommodate the never-ending flow of new, ‘urgent’ demands.
Shockingly, 78.7% of people say they feel stressed by increasing tasks and lack of time to get it all done every week – but how much of that task load is truly important work? Professionals who get stuck in the urgency trap are often stressed and mentally exhausted from being overrun by other people's priorities. And since they’re constantly occupied with urgent tasks, there is never enough time in the week for meaningful progress on their own priorities. The reality is – many professionals in this cycle might not even be aware that their ‘busyness’ isn’t actually productive.
But there is good news! The same study also found that the urgency effect can be reversed. When prompted to reflect on the long-term consequences of their decision between an urgent and important task, participants were more likely to choose the important one.
So, with a little mindfulness and effective task prioritization methods it is possible to avoid the urgency trap and align your time and efforts where they matter most. Sounds great, but how do even start? Cue the Eisenhower Priority Matrix.
What is the Eisenhower Matrix?
You might have heard of the prioritization framework before, but what exactly is the Eisenhower Matrix? The Eisenhower Matrix is a decision-making and time management tool to help effectively prioritize tasks according to their urgency and importance.
But to really understand the value of this now popular productivity method used by professionals across the world – we have to go back to its beginning and brush up on a little U.S. history.
The Eisenhower Matrix was actually created by Dwight D. Eisenhower – highly awarded Army General, Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in World War II, and - most famously - the 34th President of the United States from 1953 until 1961. Just some of Eisenhower’s political legacy from his two presidential terms includes creating the Interstate Highway System, establishing NASA, ending the Korean War, bringing Alaska and Hawaii into the union, and effectively managing a Cold War with the Soviet Union.
It’s safe to assume Eisenhower’s daily to-do list was pretty demanding for most of his professional career as a leader. And this is precisely what led him to develop a time management tool to help decide where his time and energy were best dedicated every day by identifying which of his tasks were truly important, and which were urgent.
Stephen R. Covey later popularized Eisenhower's urgent-important matrix in the 1989 publication of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Inspired by Eisenhower, Covey agreed that the key to time management wasn't about trying to do more, but rather deciding where your time is best invested every day. And to help others answer that question for themselves, Covey provided a simple grid to help even non-presidents identify the true priorities in their demanding task lists.
The Prioritization Matrix template (with examples)
Divided into four quadrants, the Eisenhower ‘Box’ - or Covey's time management matrix - helps identify your priority tasks by effectively sorting them according to importance and urgency. Let’s take a look at each of the categories of the decision matrix, with example tasks for each one to help you get started.
Quadrant I: Urgent & important
High-value tasks and activities that have set deadlines and immediate consequences if not completed on time. Prioritize completing these tasks above others.
Examples of urgent & important tasks:
- Finalizing materials for launch day.
- Completing a slide deck for an investor presentation.
- Fixing an emergency technical problem.
- Resolving a customer conflict.
Quadrant II: Important, but not urgent
High-value tasks that support progress towards long term goals which may, or may not, have a set deadline. Create a plan to complete these tasks, and schedule time to work on them for sustainable and strategic growth towards goals.
Examples of important, but not urgent tasks:
- Strategizing your product roadmap.
- Taking a new training course.
- Revamping your marketing plan.
- Regular networking and recruiting.
Quadrant III: Urgent, but not important
Low-value tasks and busywork that needs to be completed on time, but don't require your expertise. Delegate these tasks to someone else, or automate the process where you can with smart tools (like Reclaim.ai to optimize your calendar management!).
Examples of urgent, but not important tasks:
- Responding to emails or calls.
- Certain mandatory meetings.
- Requests from co-workers.
- Managing your calendar.
Quadrant IV: Not urgent, nor important
Low-value tasks that interrupt your focus and pull time from your other tasks. Cancel and decline these tasks from your schedule.
Examples of not urgent, nor important tasks:
- Unproductive meetings.
- Inconsequential or trivial to-dos.
- Social media and cyberloafing.
- Distractions and interruptions.
5 prioritization tips using the Eisenhower Principle
1. Set goals & make a plan
The first step in better prioritization is to actually establish where you’re headed. Take time to come up with professional and/or personal end goals that you are passionate about, and review these periodically to ensure you’re still on the same page.
Once you’ve established your big goals, you can work backwards on a goal-ladder to identify stepping-stone (or rung!) goals that will help you in achieving them. Try creating weekly plans around these smaller SMART goals to reduce day-to-day decision paralysis and stay motivated even when the finish line is still out of sight.
2. Take time to prioritize your tasks
Remember how participants were able to reverse the Mere Urgency Effect? Be sure to reflect on your choices before immediately responding to urgencies that might not serve progress towards your end-goals.
Take advantage of the Eisenhower Matrix (you can download the free priority matrix template here) to regularly sort through your own master list of to-dos as they come in. That way, you can build out productive daily goals around your long-term priorities and take care of your current important urgencies without getting stretched too thin in every direction.
3. Learn to deprioritize
You only have so much time in a week. That’s why it’s important to remember that effective prioritization also means effective deprioritization (hello, quadrant IV).
Practice strategically saying ‘no’ to non-priorities and other people’s urgencies when you don’t have the time or bandwidth. By taking back control of your availability, you can reduce time anxiety and be more confident that your efforts are being focused where they matter most – even if the greater reward is further down the line.
4. Defend time for important work
Unfortunately, urgencies and distractions don’t disappear once you start prioritizing your goals. While learning to decline non-priorities is a key element in getting the most from your week, there are other ways you can protect your time and energy better as well.
Time blocking your to-dos in your calendar boosts productivity up to 80% by facilitating single tasking and reducing context switching. But another awesome benefit is that it actually allows you to effectively communicate to others when you’re busy with priorities, and when you’re available for collaboration. That way you always have real time defended for productive deep work and important personal routines, while at the same time managing interruptions and reducing requests that pull you from those priorities.
5. Audit your progress
Once you’re putting in the effort to invest your time more productively – making it a habit to audit your calendar at regular intervals can offer valuable insight on where you can fine-tune your prioritization in your next planning session.
Look back at your schedule every week (or even monthly) to identify how much time you spent across focused work, productive vs. unproductive meetings, busywork and urgencies, or on personal habits. You can then evaluate where you’re being effectively time efficient on true priorities, and where your focus might be misallocated based on progress towards your goals.
Words of wisdom from a President to you 💡
After his second term in 1961, Eisenhower reflected on lessons from his presidency in several pieces for The Saturday Evening Post. These words of advice on time management still offer wisdom to busy professionals six decades later,
“These are nothing more than sturdy, down-to-earth rules that, in the busy life of high officials who seem to be always compelled to deal with the urgent ahead of the truly important, can, by their availability in the mental reference library, often point the way to satisfactory solutions.”
In today’s fast-paced world, there sometimes seem to be more urgencies than hours in a day. But whether you’re running a country like Eisenhower, writing bestsellers like Covey, or trying to hit more personal or professional goals – everyone’s time and energy are limited resources. There’s only so much you can realistically do. Being able to identify which of your tasks are true priorities allows you to be more productive in the pursuit of your long-term success, without running yourself into the ground over fleeting urgencies.
What are your thoughts on the urgency trap? Have you used the Eisenhower method to prioritize your tasks? Tweet us @reclaimai to share your thoughts! 👋
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