Dwight Eisenhower’s Decision-Making Matrix

“Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast” is an old U.S. Navy SEAL’s saying. Navy SEALs move with great urgency, but they do not rush. Rushing creates an inconsistent pace, creating an environment prone to making mistakes and causing unnecessary problems.

Setting and achieving goals is a significantly easier process when one has clarity of thought and full control over their immediate actions. In this way, a focused mindset ensures that fewer mistakes are made, and that action-taking runs more smoothly.

“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.” – Dwight Eisenhower.

During his terms as president of the US, Dwight D. Eisenhower led the development of an Interstate Highway System, pioneered NASA, integrated the first piece of civil rights legislation into law since the Civil War, ended the Korean War, and effectively kept the Cold War ‘cold’ for eight years. But why were his accomplishments so impressive?

One of the most important life skills you can develop is the ability to make wise and productive decisions. Eisenhower understood the difference between urgency and importance. In a 1954 speech, Eisenhower cited an unnamed university president who claimed, “I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”

To help simplify the decision-making process, Dwight Eisenhower (who has been referred to as one of history’s most ‘efficient’ U.S. Presidents) developed a matrix that categorises the choices that can be made in a given situation based on their urgency and importance. Over 3 decades later, the Eisenhower Matrix became popularised in Stephen Covey’s best-selling book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. It is a simple decision-making tool that helps to distinguish between tasks that are important, not important, urgent, and not urgent, eliminate time-wasters, and create more mental space to achieve important goals.

The matrix can be used to assist the decision-making process with regard to all ‘to-do’ items of an action plan. With the Eisenhower matrix as your guide, you can become more efficient by prioritising which action steps you must focus on first and which ones you can delegate as ‘unimportant’ or possibly even delete. The distinction between urgent/non-urgent and important/unimportant can sometimes be challenging to discern. Here’s how Stephen Covey defined the two ‘chalk and cheese’ terms in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People:

Urgent matters require immediate action. These are the visible issues that pop up and demand your attention NOW. Often, urgent matters come with clear consequences for not completing these tasks. Urgent tasks are unavoidable, but spending too much time putting out fires can produce a great deal of stress and could result in burnout.”

Important matters, on the other hand, are those that contribute to long-term goals and life values. These items require planning and thoughtful action. When you focus on important matters you manage your time, energy, and attention rather than mindlessly expending these resources. What is important is subjective and depends on your own values and personal goals. No one else can define what is important for you.”

The decision-making matrix is divided into four quadrants:

Quadrant 1: Urgent and Important Tasks (Do Them Immediately)

Urgent and Important tasks demand that you take action now. Choices that fall into this quadrant are referred to as “crises,” that must be addressed right away. These are the tasks, action steps or situations that require your full attention and cannot be put off. The majority of these task items have deadlines and will incur negative effects for failing to take action. Most often, these are either targets that were sprung on you from an external source or things that you put off until faced with a looming deadline. Either way, they require an immediate response.

It’s important to be aware that spending too much time on urgent and important tasks can lead to increased stress levels, burnout, and the sense that time is spiralling out of control. Spending every day on urgent and important tasks will quickly rob you of the energy and passion that is required to fulfil any meaningful objective with true justice.

Quadrant 2: Not Urgent but Important Tasks (Give Them a Deadline)

Not urgent but important tasks are what Eisenhower referred to as projects, action steps or situations that must be fulfilled but that aren’t pressing as one of today’s dire emergencies – they can wait until tomorrow if absolutely necessary. This category of action task will allow you to progress towards a long-term goal or priority. These tasks may not have a deadline or due date, so it is easy to put them off in favour of more urgent tasks. However, these items will likely have a greater impact on your long-term effectiveness in achieving long-term objectives.

This is the sweet spot of time management and optimum efficiency. This is where you focus on new creative opportunities and growth. Focusing only on important tasks means that you can prioritise activities that reflect your passions and contribute to accomplishing meaningful goals – while leaving you largely freed of pressing distractions.

Quadrant 3: Urgent but Not Important Tasks (Delegate Them to Someone)

Think about times when you have been drawn into an urgent situation. Was this pressure self-inflicted, or was it imposed upon you by someone else who insisted that you help them meet their important goals, but not your own? Urgent but unimportant tasks can be best described as interruptions, nuisances or busy work. These are unexpected distractions that can disrupt your work and are rarely worth your time and energy. Urgent tasks are typically based on other people’s expectations of you and will rarely get you closer to your meaningful long-term goals.

Being driven to complete urgent but not important tasks means you will spend your days doing things that are typically related to someone else’s priorities. It’s generally wise to delegate as many urgent but unimportant tasks as possible. Can you have someone else take care of admin tasks? Can you get your groceries home delivered rather than going to the store? Can you hire a personal/digital assistant to manage your emails? What items on your to-do list could you find a really clever way to automate?

Quadrant 4: Not Urgent and Not Important Tasks (Don’t Waste Time on Them!)

Not urgent and unimportant tasks are time-wasting activities that should be ruthlessly cut out at all costs. These activities don’t contribute to any meaningful progress on goals and can end up unnecessarily consuming up large chunks of time. According to Gerard Egan, author of The Skilled Helper book, people should never waste their time getting caught up doing things that are neither important nor urgent. Distraction is the enemy of progression. Tasks that are neither important nor urgent are just ‘nice ideas’ and result in some people wasting their entire lives.

If you know someone who is visibly ineffective and unproductive in life, take some time to look at how they spend their days. Time is the most valuable commodity that we have access to as human beings, and people who waste the best years of their life partaking in non-urgent, non-important and irrelevant tasks also tend to be those who spend the latter years of life speaking to therapists about their general state or sadness, boredom and unfulfillment. You now know how not to be one of those people.

The Eisenhower Matrix is particularly effective if you ever find yourself overwhelmed or unable to prioritise your to-do list or responsibilities. This matrix allows you to remain focused on what’s important and avoid falling into the ‘urgency trap’ when determining what your best next steps should be. According to Covey, non urgent but important tasks is the ‘Dome of Efficiency’ where time spent engaging in these tasks will allow either you to increase effectiveness and take practical steps towards delivering upon important long-term goals. This is where personal growth meets planning, distraction prevention, and decisive action taking.

Principles Into Practice Exercise:

When you’re faced with a set of action steps or tasks to complete, how do you decide which to tackle first? Do you select the task that’s going to bring you closer to your long-term goals? Or do you give your attention to the most urgent item on your list that’s screaming out to you the loudest? Try using the Eisenhower decision-making matrix to avoid getting trapped in a state of general ‘busyness’ and start achieving more of what’s important to you today.

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