Tools for your Founder Toolbox: The Eisenhower Matrix
Understanding Urgency vs Importance with tasks in your day, your work, and your life is how you do the RIGHT things rather than just do a LOT of things.
Use the Eisenhower Matrix to ruthlessly cull tasks from your To Do List that you shouldn’t be doing and focus on the truly impactful stuff.
I’m a To Do List addict.
It’s not because I’m ultra productive (although sometimes I am), it’s because I’m weak.
You see, I’m a hoarder. Not of stuff, but of links (interesting wikipedia read btw). Links are a medium through which I try to hoard knowledge. Also, I’m a liar because I do hoard some stuff like BOOKS because again I’m a knowledge hoarder. Or more specifically, I am compelled to hoard the “option value” of that knowledge.
To be honest, I’m not sure if I’m referencing the financial definition of option value (specifically an American call option so the right, but not the obligation to purchase/learn something at a time you want it) or the social welfare definition where it means the “value that is placed on willingness to pay for preserving a public asset or service even if there is little or no likelihood of the individual actually ever using it.”
I feel personally attacked rn, but I deserve it.
I mean here’s a zoomed out version of one of my To Do Lists (blue = link lol)
Each of those links represents at least 20-30 minutes of reading something probably complicated and something that probably isn’t going to get me closer to my goals. Yet it’s also probably something pretty neat though. Which is why I keep hoarding those links. I would like to eventually read them all, but the reality is that I can’t. I just can’t.
The 13 January James Clear newsletter (the Atomic Habits guy) actually had a great quote about this:
"The world contains far more information than any single person can learn in their lifetime. The question is not whether you are ignorant, but what you choose to be ignorant about. Few topics are worth your precious time. Choose what you pay attention to with great care."
But seriously, it’s sometimes unbelievable how much time I spend doing non-core tasks because of all these little detours I take. Of course, this exploration can be super valuable, but only when it’s during the time I’m deliberately supposed to be doing that!
So for me it’s often knowledge chasing that eats up my time, but a lot of times it’s also the list of “nice to do” things for my startup, or my set of overly ambitious personal resolutions, or my tendency to attempt to schedule and overschedule my day down to the minute. It’s all these things that make me feel like I’m not working hard enough or learning fast enough or achieving big enough goals. For you it might be something else. It doesn’t really matter the “why” though because the remedy is the same.
Categorize the tasks and Kill the ones that don’t get you closer to your goals.
and there’s a great tool to help you do this.
Supposedly, the story goes President (and General) Dwight “the Ike Man” Eisenhower said something like "I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent".
In reality, he was quoting someone else and blah blah history is nebulous and written by the victors etc etc but people bastardized this (as people do) and made a productivity tool out of it call the Eisenhower Decision Matrix which I have helpfully reproduced below!
Simple matrix. Simple tool. Ruthless efficiency.
I built a spreadsheet to make this process easy af. So here’s the link for you.
Feel free to follow along with your current to do list as I walk through the process.
The big idea here is that there are two axes, axes?, no I mean axes! (sorry for that) on which to evaluate every task in your To Do List.
Important Tasks ← These get you closer to your ultimate goals. If the task doesn’t do that, it’s not important to you. No exceptions. Don’t have any ultimate goals? Pick some (like one of mine rn is to build a Dragon) before you start this process.
Urgent Tasks ← These tasks are near term time sensitive. No other criteria applies. Does it need to get done today? Urgent. Done this week? Probably urgent if it’s already Wednesday. Done this month? Not urgent. Don’t overcomplicate this.
If a task qualifies as Important and Urgent (top right quadrant), then it should be the next thing in your list. Don’t re-order anything in each quadrant until you’re completely done with the initial wave of categorization.
If a task is Important, but NOT Urgent (bottom right) - Schedule a time for it in the future (set a reminder) and move on with your life. This frees you from worrying about it because now is the time for the Important AND Urgent tasks. We just decided that. Don’t schedule anything until you’re done with the initial wave of categorization.
If a task is Urgent, but NOT important (top left) there are two options. Most internet essays say DELEGATE this one to someone else, but obviously not all of us have personal assistants that can like pay our bills for us because apparently blog writers on the internet do? idk. if you can delegate something, then great, but if you can’t delegate (like a normal person) then BATCH these tasks. You see, most of these urgent tasks are actually pretty quick but the switching time costs between tasks is where they eat up the day. Set aside an hour or two to grind through these types in a contiguous block if at all humanly possible. Again, DON’T think about how you’re going to batch or do any of these until you’re done with the initial wave of categorization.
If a task is NOT Important and NOT Urgent (bottom left), just delete it. I know it hurts. Just delete it and move on with your life. You’ll forget about it soon. If it’s too hard to delete it, then maybe it’s actually important? Assign it to the bottom left with the intention of reviewing your Ultimate Goals later to potentially revise that call. Again, don’t review the toughies until you’ve completed your initial wave of categorization. The trick here is that by the end of doing all the other ones you’ll probably just say screw it and delete it anyway! I manipulate myself into doing the right thing like this all the time haha.
Trust the Process
Now there’s two ways to actually filter your tasks.
One is visually (which is sometimes helpful). Take your task list and just copy/paste the relevant row into each quadrant where they should fit for each item in your list. Obviously, this is the top half of my linked sheet.
This can take a while and frankly isn’t how I think. I will let indecision and paralysis creep in if I have to make a 4 choice decision for each of the many tasks I need to filter. So I made the second way that uses a list filtering mechanism to work within my brain’s constraints.
For the second, we’ll start by copy/pasting your To Do list into the Rows (make sure you have enough rows/columns added in your sheet to account for every item).
Note: If you’re looking for a great To Do List app, I love Workflowy. It’s infinitely recursive To Do Lists with great keyboard shortcuts. It’s fast to create lists and critically it’s also fast to complete/delete them! It has a desktop app, a web app, and a phone app (Android and IOS) that all sync with each other. Workflowy also copies over just as you would like it to row by row in Google Sheets and Excel! Also it has a free version.
Then I go down Column E and put a 1 (1 = TRUE) for everything that qualifies as Urgent (as defined above). Then I go down Column F and do the same thing for Important tasks.
I have already set a formula for Uncle Google to tell me what to do with that task (DELETE, DO NEXT, etc) in Column G.
Then I filter the columns according to the “Sort by” instructions in the sheet and complete the tasks in that order! I do the Important stuff scheduling before the urgent stuff because it doesn’t take that long and I can check more things off my mental To Do List faster that way.
So this is your entire universe.
Your one wild and precious life MapReduced right before your very eyes.
I don’t do this every day. I usually am forced to do this when I’m overwhelmed with my link hoarding or feel like I’m panickingly overwhelmed by startup tasks. Every time I do it though, I feel good after. Every time. Every. Time. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
We all want to do and say and experience and feel and complete and win at more things in life than is actually possible for the time we have allotted to us by biology.
So culling tasks from our life that don’t get us closer to where we want to be should be part of our routine (he shouted at himself through the internet).
I’m scheduling this process (categorized as Urgent and Important FYSA) for once a week now and feel free to reach out to see how it’s going!
I hope this added value to your day.
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