How Urgent Are Your Important Tasks?

Steven Covey popularized the Eisenhower Decision Matrix (EDM) to help people plan out their days and their projects. The EDM was derived from a famous remark made by General Eisenhower: “What is important is seldom urgent, and what is urgent is seldom important.”

The EDM is a great tool to use for prioritizing resources in any marketing campaign you’re running, or even overall marketing tasks. It can keep your team on track and avoid the chaos that can appear when everyone is running around “putting out fires.” The matrix has four quadrants and maps the urgency of tasks against their overall importance to the business: 

eisenhower-decision-matrix-graphI’ve hacked the EDM by adding a third dimension within each quadrant, particularly the first one. The additional dimension I like to use when deciding prioritization within quadrants is difficulty. I’ll provide more on why that can be a helpful factor to consider later on.

First, let’s talk about each quadrant in detail:

Quadrant One: Urgent Tasks/Important Tasks

Unfortunately, Quadrant One is where many of us marketers spend too much of our time. An ad is broken, a site is down, a mail piece is misprinted, or a client is unhappy. This results in an “all hands-on-deck” effort to clear the emergency and get back to some semblance of normality.

The cost of having yourself – or your staff – spend a lot of time in Quadrant One is burnout, turnover, and a work environment where everything is always at DEFCON ONE. In project management, being in Quadrant One is known as “crashing the time.” It’s a state that should be avoided at all costs because this is where mistakes are often made.

You and your team will inevitably have to spend a considerable amount of your time in Quadrant One because business life is unpredictable. There will always be fires that have to be put out. The trick is to use the system to focus on the marketing tasks within this quadrant that are important, urgent, and have the most material impact on your marketing KPIs. Hit home runs on your KPIs and your chances of getting a raise, bonus, or promotion are much better.

Quadrant Two: Non-Urgent Tasks/Important Tasks

Quadrant Two is the “sweet spot” where management gurus say we should strive to spend more of our time and mental energy, particularly if we have strategic or management responsibilities. In this quadrant, there’s time for deliberative thought, evaluation, and creativity. Deadlines are understood and resources are allocated in time to meet them. Surprises are few, and goals are long-term and strategic. You can’t completely eliminate surprises and crises from happening, but if you do a great job of managing things in Quadrant Two, you’ll spend less time in Quadrant One. Procrastinate within Quadrant Two, and you have a crisis that moves into Quadrant One.

As a manager in Quadrant Two, you have the freedom to delegate, let your team work its magic, and think long and hard about the strategies and tactics that are most likely to move the needle for your business.

Both digital project management platforms and a whiteboard with post-it notes can work to organize your initiatives and tasks into quadrants. Perhaps use color coding to indicate difficulty of completing the tasks and initiatives.

Quadrant Three: Urgent Tasks/Unimportant Tasks

Why spend any time in Quadrant Three, where urgency – masking as importance – bogs you down in tasks that aren’t really that important? Well, there’s no good reason other than the fact that we humans are easily distracted. In the era of social media and multitasking, our attention is constantly being divided.

Let’s be frank here, too: corporate culture often rewards an appearance of activity irrespective of whether this activity is crucial or tangential to the business’ strategic goals. The result is a conflation of “busy-ness” and “business.”

Reducing the “urgent but unimportant” task load isn’t easy because it’s often a product of culture. Culture isn’t easy to reform, and often there is not general agreement on what the “business critical” goals are in any organization. Clarity on this issue usually flows from the top. Unfortunately, many C-level executives spend so much time stuck in Quadrant One that they never get to this important goal.

Quadrant Four: Non-Urgent Tasks/Unimportant Tasks

In a perfect world, Quadrant Four wouldn’t even exist. Ideally, neither you nor any of your team should do non-urgent, unimportant initiatives or tasks. The age of Facebook, Twitter, BuzzFeed, and The Huffington Post has made tolerating activities from Quadrant Four somewhat inevitable, but you should still strive to move the bulk of activities to Quadrant Two.

By hacking the EDM and adding difficulty, one can accomplish the initiatives and tasks that move the needle more quickly. Color coding or tagging the tasks is a great way to actively organize and put this into practice.

Go rock your quadrants.

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