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How to Choose What to Work On, and When to Work On It

The simple — and presidentially vetted — Eisenhower matrix.
COLLABORATORS Shane Parrish, Mary Burtzloff
Eisenhower Matrix

Former president Dwight Eisenhower lent his wisdom — and his name brand — to the all-important practices of decision making and time management. Using the Eisenhower Matrix, pictured here, you can evaluate every decision to manage your time based on two elementary questions: (1) How important is it? (2) How urgent is it?

Featured on Shane Parrish’s Farnam Street blog, the matrix has made something of a comeback in recent years. (There’s even an app for it, which you can find at Eisenhower.me.) “We often focus too strongly on the ‘urgent and important’ field, on the things that have to be dealt with immediately. Ask yourself: When will I deal with the things that are important, but not urgent? When will I take the time to deal with the important tasks before they become urgent? This is the field for strategic, long-term decisions,” writes Parrish.

Here at The Build Network, we wanted to know: How did Eisenhower himself assess urgency and importance? When you’re the president, isn’t everything urgent and important, at least to someone? Yes — but there are degrees. Mary Burtzloff, archivist at the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum in Abilene, Kansas, helped us sort through them:

Urgent and important: In 1957, Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard and called in parts of the 101st Airborne Division to ensure the integration of an Arkansas high school after the governor defied Brown v. Board of Education.

Urgent but not important: In 1953, Eisenhower chose to break tradition and not wear a top hat to his inauguration. “He had to make a decision by the [inauguration] date, but it was a relatively inconsequential one,” says Burtzloff.

Important but not urgent: In 1956, Eisenhower signed The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 into law. Two years earlier, he publicly shared his “Grand Plan” for upgrading America’s highways. The idea first gripped Eisenhower back in 1919, when as a lieutenant colonel in the Army he took part in an arduous cross-country military convoy. During that trip he saw firsthand the poor condition of U.S. roads.

Neither urgent nor important: Deciding whether to respond to notes from concerned citizens fell into this category. “Tens of thousands of letters came to the White House,” says Burtzloff. “The staff responded to the vast majority, but on occasion one would be forwarded to his desk, and he might choose to send a personal response.”

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THE PLUS

Stephen Covey fans may recognize the Eisenhower Matrix not only from First Things First — where it was presented as a time management matrix — but also from The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, wherein the third habit — “Put First Things First” — stresses both importance and urgency as key parameters in managing time.

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How to Choose What to Work On, and When to Work On It

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