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Tackling What Is Most Urgent First
When the tasks and assignments pile up, leaders can become overwhelmed. A multitude of things to do can paralyze even the most productive leaders. When the problems and tasks are so plentiful that leaders don’t know where to start, they often shut down and pretend they just need a little room to breathe before starting.
Instead of chopping away and making the pile smaller, it is easier to find a distraction and ignore the ever-expanding list of tasks to complete. But the worry over not making progress and getting ever further behind eventually shakes things loose. Unfortunately, now there are even more calls to return, emails to respond to, outlines to compose, and tasks to complete.
Where do you start? How can a leader make any real dent in the ever-growing morass of to-dos?
This is the moment to remember the Eisenhower matrix. Dwight Eisenhower clearly had his hands full as the Allied Commander during the Second World War and then as President of the United States. Like other busy leaders, he often times felt overwhelmed and frozen by the massive number of tasks before him. So, he created a simple matrix to help him get started and direct his energy.
The matrix asks leaders to place tasks and issues into four quadrants in a 2x2 grid. On the one axis is urgency, and on the other is importance. It’s somewhat amazing how things look differently after organizing tasks and problems into the four boxes of the matrix. Issues and tasks are either important or unimportant in the immediate moment, and are either urgent or not urgent right now.
Of course, the key to making a fresh start is to decide which tasks and problems are both urgent and important. Completing the matrix cuts the list of to-dos down to a more manageable size. More critically, it focuses attention on those problems that deserve the most attention.
Just applying the matrix to your current list of tasks will often shake off the inertia of inaction. With a smaller, more manageable slate of urgent and important tasks to consider, most normally productive leaders will become reenergized and have a place to start the arduous process of getting to it.
Don’t forget this old standby approach to prioritizing tasks and breaking through the logjam of too many things to do. Some simple ideas never lose their magic.