Understanding the difference between “urgent” and “important” is the difference between success and failure.
This idea was popularized by Dwight Eisenhower during his time as a General and as President of the United States. Eisenhower developed a 2×2 matrix to model the concept:
As you can see, the matrix organizes tasks into the two categories based on urgency and importance. Most people understand the need to prioritize tasks that are both urgent and important and de-prioritize those that are the latter, but the grey area, or combination of the two seem to be what derails folks from making progress towards their goals.
In other words, the largest opportunity for improvement exist in the upper right and lower left quadrant.
The critical insight is most of us spend too much time on unimportant tasks that are urgent, when we should spend as much time as possible on acting on and planning around what is important for helping us meet our long-term goals.
How many times over the past month have you become lost in the abyss of email hell only to come up for air at 5:00 p.m. to realize that you have not made any progress towards your most important work? If you are like me, this happens more often than you would like.
As humans we are prone to completing tasks. It feels good. This makes urgent things like answering emails, attending meetings, or making calls satisfying in the short term. Our brains are wired to seek completion and the pleasure it brings is what Francesca Gino and Bradley Staats call “completion bias.” The completion bias makes us prone to completing “urgent” tasks without considering their impact on our goals. It is action without strategy.
In the book Deep Work, Cal Newport cites a 2012 McKinsey study that found the average knowledge worker spends more than 60 percent of the work week engaged in electronic communication and Internet searching, with close to 30 percent of a worker’s time dedicated to reading and answering email alone.
The McKinsey study suggest we are spending the majority of our days getting things like email done efficiently, but this raises a larger question: Are we actually being effective in completing our most important work? If we spend 60 percent our time on electronic communication each week, there is only 40 percent left for focused work.
In the Effective Executive, Peter Drucker explains the distinction between efficiency and effectiveness, writing: “Efficiency is doing things right; effectiveness is doing the right things.” The “right things” are important. This is what makes the Eisenhower matrix so useful.
We need to spend more time on our most important work.
Next time a new project, task, or initiative gets dropped on your desk, take a look at the Eisenhower Matrix. Figure out where the task sits. Remember the completion bias and the difference between efficiency and effectiveness. If we spend more time acting and planning around our most important work it will make us all more productive and successful, regardless of the endeavor.