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President Eisenhower invented a trick to be more productive

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  • President Dwight D. Eisenhower developed the “Eisenhower Matrix.” It’s a tool for figuring out what’s important versus what’s urgent.
  • The tool was featured in Stephen Covey’s book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” which pinpoints effective practices that help professionals solve problems.
  • Your goal should be to spend time on tasks that are important but not urgent for maximum productivity. Covey wrote that people often spend too much time on things that are not important in the long term. 
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The world of work has changed a lot since the 1950s, but some things have stayed the same. Time management, work prioritization, and stress management are all tools used to increase productivity. 

Researchers are still exploring ways to be more efficient in the workplace. Some studies show that developing a morning routine may increase daily productivity, while other experts suggest tricking your brain into getting more done.

One method for increasing productivity is the “Eisenhower Matrix,” a tool developed by former President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who served from 1953 to ’61 — and it’s still a useful framework for anyone struggling to complete many projects at once. The tool was also highlighted in the Stephen Covey’s best-selling business book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” which pinpoints effective everyday practices that help solve professional problems. The Eisenhower Matrix is introduced as part of “Habit 3.”

Eisenhower developed this strategy when he realized he needed a better way to prioritize his tasks while making tough presidential decisions. The matrix helps you compartmentalize tasks by urgency and importance. In other words, it divides your to-do list into smaller lists of four. 

You can use this tool and schedule your week according to what’s most important to you and what will have the most meaningful results.

Prioritize importance over urgency

Here’s the matrix, taken from a book Covey coauthored later titled “First Things First.”

MerrillCoveyMatrix

The Eisenhower Matrix.
Wikimedia Commons


The two main criteria are “urgent” and “important.” While urgent activities require immediate attention, important activities contribute to your mission, values, and goals. You want to focus most of your energy on activities that are important but nonurgent — aka the activities that fall in Quadrant II.

According to Covey, Quadrant II includes relationship building, recognizing new opportunities, planning, and prevention.

You’ll want to stay out of Quadrant I, which is filled primarily with crises; Quadrant III, which includes interruptions and unnecessary meetings; and Quadrant IV, which includes busy work and time wasters.

It sounds simple enough, but the problem is that we’re far more likely to deal with urgent activities, regardless of importance, because we can see them right in front of our faces. Think of an email coming in, a phone ringing, or a coworker barging into your cubicle.

Covey wrote: “Urgent matters are usually visible. They press on us; they insist on action. They’re often popular with others. They’re usually right in front of us. And often they are pleasant, easy, fun to do. But so often they are unimportant.”

Quadrant II activities, on the other hand, don’t have the same immediate consequences, so we’re less likely to attend to them.

You’re probably spending too little time on stuff that’s important in the long term

Covey gives an example of how the conflict between urgency and importance plays out in real life.

He asked a group of shopping-center managers to identify one change they could make that would have an enormous impact on their results. All the managers said they would build personal relationships with the owners of the stores in the shopping center.

Unfortunately, when Covey helped the managers analyze their daily schedules, they realized they were spending only about 5% of their time on this important (Quadrant II) activity. That’s largely because they were busy with other seemingly important tasks, like meetings and phone calls (Quadrant I).

Meanwhile, the store owners were plagued with employment and inventory problems, among other issues, and had minimal management training.

The managers decided to be proactive and spend about one-third of their time in building relationships with the store owners. As a result, according to Covey, the managers’ numbers increased 20%. And they acquired more tenants because of increased sales from the stores in the shopping center.

The main takeaway here is that sometimes you need to take a step back so you can see the disparity between how you should spend your time and how you are spending your time. Then you can make a plan to adjust your schedule so that you allot more time and energy to the activities that will produce long-term results, instead of the ones that will produce results five minutes later.

As a consequence, Covey said, you’ll end up with fewer Quadrant I activities to deal with: “Your crises and problems would shrink to manageable proportions because you would be thinking ahead, working on the roots, doing preventive things that keep situations from developing into crises in the first place.”

Of course, unless you’re a senior manager, you’d be hard-pressed to say you’re no longer showing up to seemingly useless meetings. But what you can do is resist the urge to respond to emails, phone calls, and coworkers’ requests as soon as they come in. (You can respond to them at a designated time later in the day.)

Once you’ve identified the tasks that can wait, then you can use the time you save to plan ahead for big projects that will truly make a difference for you and your team.

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