A Little History
If you’re ever trying to find great quips related to leadership, motivation or time management, don’t forget to look up Dwight D. Eisenhower; he’s credited with a ton of them. One of his more famous quotes is, “Most things which are urgent are not important, and most things which are important are not urgent.”
In fact, it’s been said that this statement was the basis for Eisenhower’s own personal time management system. By categorizing tasks based on both importance and urgency, the former president determined what needed to be done right away, what could be scheduled for later, what could be delegated and what could be eliminated (or seriously deprioritized). Since Eisenhower has always been considered an incredibly productive and efficient leader, it must be a good system, right?
In Comes Stephen R. Covey
This method of categorizing tasks may have been ole Ike’s brainchild, but he’s not really the one who made it famous. Although he doesn’t mention Eisenhower’s name, Stephen R. Covey discusses and expands on the same idea in his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. However, Covey mainly focuses on the point that most of us don’t do a good job of putting tasks into the right categories – and even when we do, we still spend too much time on those things deemed “urgent” as opposed to those that are “important.”
When you categorize things based on both urgency and importance, you end up with four classifications:
- Group 1: Important and Urgent
- Group 2: Important but Not Urgent
- Group 3: Urgent but Not Important
- Group 4: Neither Urgent nor Important
The first time I saw this matrix, I was a bit thrown off by the third grouping. How could something be urgent but not important? Doesn’t the very word “urgent” imply that the item is also important? Well, evidently it’s fairly common to mistake urgency for importance. So, before going any further, let’s take a closer look at what these words really mean – in the context of this time management method, that is.
Defining Urgent and Important
A task is considered important if your goals are furthered by completing it – whatever your goals may be. In the context of project management, this means that the task or action item somehow contributes to the overall success of the project. So, the most obvious important tasks are those that need to be done to finish the project. However, things like good stakeholder communication, budget variance analysis and team recognition should also be considered important since all these activities help a project run more smoothly and efficiently.
Urgency is a completely different matter. A task or activity is considered to be urgent if you or someone else feels it needs to be addressed immediately. Take particular note of the “someone else” phrase here. While many urgent activities – such as getting a system back online so everyone can return to work – are extremely important, others only give the illusion of being importance (and some don’t even do that).
For instance, suppose your friend Mary from the second floor pokes her head into your office and starts complaining that someone stole her parking space. This event has a sense of urgency about it since Mary is standing in front of you right now and talking about something that is clearly annoying her. While urgent, it’s not really important – at least, not to you and your goals for the day.
Applying to Project Management
When considering the four groupings of the Eisenhower Matrix, Covey believes that most people spend too much time on urgent activities instead of focusing on important ones. In particular, he points out that we don’t spend nearly enough time on Group 2 tasks – those that are categorized as important, but not urgent. Even though Covey is approaching this from a more general and personal viewpoint, the same thing happens in a lot of project environments as well.
Basically, just like in our personal lives, we’re all more prone to focus on those things that are either staring us in the face or breathing down our necks. After all, the squeaky wheel gets the grease, right? We totally recognize the importance in other matters, but since they’re not demanding our immediate attention, we keep putting them off until they never actually get done. However, if we kept up with oiling all of the wheels on a regular basis, they’d never actually get to that squeaky point – and they’d probably be working more efficiently all along due to the regular maintenance.
Now, we’re never going to eliminate those Group 1 matters that are both urgent and important, but if we can find a way to spend more time on Group 2 activities, we can greatly reduce urgent emergencies and be more efficient in the process.
A Concrete Example
Just to illustrate the point, let’s look at an example. We know stakeholder communication is extremely important, and that we should have some plan in place to report project progress to all interested parties. However, it’s also pretty easy to get lax in this area and not report as often as we should, just because the matter doesn’t seem urgent.
Maybe your general plan is to send out a progress report at the end of every week, but you haven’t done so the last couple of Fridays because there wasn’t enough time. In actuality, on the first Friday you missed, you spent half an hour searching through archived email to find someone’s email address because it was bugging you that it wasn’t listed in your contacts. On the second Friday, you were shanghaied in the break room and ended up spending an hour defending your position on office dress code.
The following Monday, you get a call from one team member to tell you that a major milestone has been reached (right on schedule, too!) and the project is ready to continue on to the next phase in another department. You immediately contact the other department with what you believe is great news, only to find that they’re not ready to begin work – and they won’t be for at least a week. When you point out that they were scheduled to start this work today, the head of that department replies, “We’re used to the other group never finishing on time, so we never schedule anything until we know they’re almost done.”
So, now your project is stalled for a week and there’s not much you can do to fix that. In fact, not only are you stuck for a week, but now you have to contact everyone else involved, explain the delay and readjust the project's master schedule. While you can mutter all you want about the one department not sticking to the master schedule, you know in your heart that the whole problem could have been avoided if you had communicated better.
Don’t Go Overboard
It’s hard to go anywhere these days without hearing the mantra, “Be proactive, not reactive.” While that advice is sound, it doesn’t offer a lot of help in how to actually be proactive. That’s the beauty of the Eisenhower matrix and Covey’s advice on how to use it. It actually gives you a new way to think about things and guides you to a managing style that is more proactive – and more effective.
Covey advocates spending less time on Group 3 and Group 4 tasks, and more time on Group 2 activities. In the process of doing this, the number of tasks that land in Group 1 should be cut down considerably, which gives you even more time to spend on Group 2.
When first trying to apply this method, many try to eliminate Group 3 and Group 4 activities altogether, but that’s actually not a good strategy. It’s critical to remember that even though something isn’t directly important to you or obviously important to the project, that it still may be important to someone else.
Sometimes, when a team member interrupts you for a seemingly unimportant reason, it’s a good idea to take a break. You want to be effective and efficient, but you’re not a machine – and you don’t want to be perceived as one. Soft skills are important, too.
References and Additional Resources
Covey, Stephen R., The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, RosettaBooks LLC, 2004.
Dwight D. Eisenhower, https://www.dwightdeisenhower.com/biodde.html
Dwight D. Eisenhower, by White House under Public Domain Image
Eisenhower Matrix: Created by Michele McDonough
Clock in London: sxc.hu/blackbetty