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'The Eisenhower Matrix' by Jeremy Lander

Dwight D. Eisenhower signing something urgent and important

I got in a bit of a ‘tiz’ one afternoon last week. I was in the garden and had all sorts of plans and I think I felt I was suddenly being overtaken by the Spring which was literally happening before my eyes. Buds were opening on trees that I swear half an hour earlier had no buds. I had to get all these jobs done before it was TOO LATE.

I was in the urgent AND important quadrant in this diagram – or at least I thought I was:

The diagram is based on a quote attributed to U.S. President Eisenhower who is reported to have said: "I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent problems are seldom important, and the important problems are seldom urgent." I wonder how the Cuban missile crisis would have gone had he still been in charge. Anyway, a basic "Eisenhower Box", divided into four quadrants, is beloved of time management gurus the world over and is designed to help us evaluate the urgency and importance of any activity so we know how to deal with them and maximise our efficiency.

The box above was devised by Covey, Merrill & Merrill for a self-help book called First Things First but there are dozens of other versions. They are all hilarious, what for instance is meant by ‘some calls/other calls’? What is ‘busy work’? And what of the yellow box? (more on that later). They all have one thing in common though, they are all pretty disdainful of the not urgent and not important quadrant. Brett & Kate McKay’s diagram in The Art of Manliness (haven’t figured out if this title is tongue in cheek or not) looks like the one below and the ‘not important/ not urgent box’ activities (which they describe as ‘dicking around’) are to be eliminated:

To return to my ‘urgent and important’ garden problem I realised that nothing was on fire, I wasn’t attending to some kind of desperate emergency. I was probably in the ‘urgent but not important’ quadrant. Difficult to know who to delegate to, since I don’t have a gardener, but it was hardly life and death whether I got the seed potatoes in the ground. Although this time last year I thought it was. With supermarket shelves rapidly emptying it was grow stuff or, according to my early lockdown brain, face starvation.

In fact, speaking of this time last year, I was looking at my 2020 diary and all the things I had crossed out – appointments, events, meetings, holidays – it was basically one blank page after another. Yes, there were worries about loss of income and not being able to spend time with loved ones, but I realise now it was a rare, possibly once in an adult lifetime, chance to spend some time in the ‘not important and not urgent’ quadrant. I had misremembered from some motivational speaker at a seminar years ago that this was the quadrant where we should spend more time: daydreaming, being creative… dicking around. But in fact it was in the ‘important and not urgent’ quadrant where she had told us we should be. The yellow box! Silly me – that’s where we ‘work on our relationships’ and even more importantly: PLAN OUR LIVES. And we know how to make God laugh don’t we? Tell him our plans. How he must have been chortling away at us these last 12 months.

You can spend many a happy hour dicking around deciding in which box or quadrant to put a certain activity - a sort of Eisenhowerian parlour game if you will - what about painting? Golf? Cooking a nice meal? Sex? Meditation? And then it hit me: as soon as you land on something that you think is not important and not urgent, smelling the roses for example, it becomes important! It shoots up a box into the yellow zone. Perhaps that seminar wasn’t such a waste of time after all.

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