In several conversations with colleagues and peers recently I have found myself invoking the Eisenhower Matrix, a grid often used in time management. It originates from a quote by Eisenhower: “I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”

Evolving from this polarity is a simple yet useful time management tool – that any tasks can be plotted on a matrix of importance and urgency. 

The traditional way of using this is to determine when to do tasks. For each quadrant there’s an action:

  1. Important, Urgent: do it now
  2. Important, Non-Urgent: schedule it
  3. Urgent, Non-Important: delegate it
  4. Non-Important, Non-Urgent: remove it from your to-do list
The Eisenhower Matrix as it’s traditionally used

In many situations this is a helpful tool when applied in that way. However, in my conversations, which have been about stress management as much as time management, I’ve been using it a little differently.

The challenge that I found in my role, as well as in many of my colleagues’, was that it’s very easy to find yourself living completely in the “Important and Urgent” box. This often means operating in a reactive space – which, while sometimes necessary, is much more likely to be stressful. To put it one way: it’s is an ok place to visit, but not a great place to live.

Urgency is Sneaky

Another observation is that urgency is sneaky. It has a way of dialling up that “important” metric – because the pressure of the need to “do it now!” can make something feel more important than it actually is in relation to other, less pressing tasks.

Most of the truly significant things in my role actually sit in the “Important, non-Urgent” box – and if I’m always re-scheduling these because I’m reacting to urgency, not only do we risk making slower progress as a business, but I find myself under a whole heap of “should”s which, for me, are a perfect recipe for stress and sleepless nights. 

In a way, I’m using this concept slightly less as the matrix and more closely in line with Eisenhower’s original quote. Sometimes less weight needs to be on the urgent, even if it’s important, to make way for the genuinely essential. It’s the short-term vs the long-term, reactive vs proactive, fixing something vs achieving excellence.

Example: Our Coaching Programme

A recent example of this for me: it took me over 7 months to roll out the coaching programme at Fountain.

I had compiled the blueprint, we had a great plan – but it was never as pressing as the immediate challenge of the week, the day, the hour. The words “coaching programme” languished on my to-do list, becoming a guilt-bludgeon I could easily whack myself with for most of 2019. 

When it finally was up and running at the start of 2020, the new coaching programme achieved some really important things:

  • It meant every person at Fountain had a designated coach and regular 1:1s, supporting wellbeing, improving upskilling and helping people progress in their learning and careers
  • It removed an important bottleneck on two of my colleagues who had previously held the majority of 1:1s
  • It empowered a group of 11 people to become coaches, supporting their career progression
  • It is the proof-of-concept for our plan to be an agency where everyone coaches and is coached, a huge aspect in maintaining our exceptional culture in the future
  • AND POTENTIALLY MOST IMPORTANTLY: it freed up time and headspace for my co-director Laura to work on improvements to our internal work management system – one of HER “vital but not urgent” tasks that will make a massive difference to everyone in the business!

I’m also extremely grateful to have had this programme in place before we had to react quickly to the coronavirus – as we went into lockdown, we already had a system with distributed responsibility for checking in that everyone in our Fountain community was doing ok.

Don’t wait for the non-urgent to become urgent

Impact and urgency don’t always match up – but that “do it now!” pressure can warp our prioritisation.

Another way of looking at it is that if you’re always dealing with “urgent-important”, you’re kind of just waiting for the “non-urgent important” to become urgent – when people are quitting, when systems fail – essentially when they turn into a crisis.

At that point, it will be even harder to find the best solutions or make the best decisions for the long term, precisely because of the “do it now!” pressure.

But how to change?

This is all very well, I hear you say, but I’m up to my neck in “urgent important”! How can make time for “important, non-urgent” too?

Different roles, different levels of responsibility and different types of organisation mean that there is no quick answer to this.

But I do believe that if your workload means you are always in fire-fighting mode (actual fire-fighters excepted) the scope of the role might need addressing. And I don’t mean this in the short term – most roles will have weeks, or even months, where we have to operate in reactive mode. That’s just life!

And sometimes genuine emergencies happen that need to be prioritised way above everything else – an embodiment of that is of course the coronavirus response. But even in the context of this crazy time, as we’re reacting to new and unexpected challenges every day, we need to find a way to dial back to the bigger picture too – as we react to the immediacy, we still need to keep focus the longer term. Like many things, the cost of not doing that is going to be greater in these heightened times.

When the workload on your plate consistently means that you don’t have time to take that step back, see the wood for the trees and look at the bigger picture, it’s probably time to reassess your role, and if that’s not possible, then your approach to it.

For me, as well as for some of my colleagues, increasing our awareness of how urgency can be sneaky and reminding ourselves to take those steps back to identify the essential, was enough to give us a different relationship to prioritising our to do lists. And I can definitely learn from experiences such as the coaching programme roll-out; that the impact can be far-reaching when we look beyond the urgent to find the things that will make us exceptional.