By Interactive Strategies
Dec 02, 2014

The Eisenhower Priority Matrix

Not one person in the history of Earth has ever said, "When I grow up I want to be a project manager." Yet, for those of us in website development, we are surrounded by these mysterious, heroic, attractive women and men, who are somehow able to compel dozens of internal resources, vendors, and client staff to perform hundreds of discrete tasks, all the while ensuring they are done on time and to everyone’s satisfaction. 

It’s a little like this: you care for seven babies. Some of them are crying, some of them need to be changed right now, others will require baby food pretty darn soon. You have only two hands, and you can only sling one clean diaper at a time or handle one bottle.  Listen to them start to wail in unison.  They were all adorable and quiet seconds ago.  There are no nearby windows to throw yourself out of.  What do you do?  What bottom to wipe first?   

It is my firm belief that the top skill a good project manager must have is the ability to prioritize tasks, not just for themselves, but sometimes for those who report to them or rely upon them for accurate, intelligent scheduling and decision making.  It’s not easy.  Reacting to every email that hits your inbox in order of receipt is not only often impossible, but usually a very bad idea.  A skilled PM must figure out what makes sense to do first and quickest, and so on down the line, until everything is done and accounted for, or at least scheduled and tracked to ensure it happens in the future.  

There are many effective techniques to accomplish this, but the one I like the best is attributed to one of the most pleasant United States Presidents, Dwight D. Eisenhower. President Eisenhower was renowned as a deeply focused, effective administrator, skills that led to his appointment during World War II as the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, and later as President. This was a leader who shined at efficiency, pure logistics, and the skilled coordination of multiple players, many of whom were not aligned as a leadership team. One of his techniques to help get many things done efficiently came to be known as the Eisenhower Priority Matrix, based on the key principle that “what is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.”  His technique allows a person to focus on the importance and time sensitivity of tasks by placing each to-do inside a grid that looks like this:

I love this thing. Four interrelated to-do lists that force you to prioritize your tasks into easy-to-understand buckets prior to any action on anything taking place. The breakdown is simple. You’ve been given a list of twenty things to do, which of the following four quadrants does each task belong in?

Quadrant 1: Important and Urgent
This is the fire drill quadrant, aka FIX IT. Great examples of tasks that could belong in here are: 

A) The client’s website is down and they’re losing $15,000 in revenue an hour. 

B) Developers require the PEM key to the server today or the website can’t be deployed, thereby blowing the start of QA on Thursday. 

C) President of interactive agency is out of Coke Zero. 

You’ll be surprised at how few tasks belong in this box, but obviously they must be dealt with first and not avoided.

Quadrant 2: Important, but Not Urgent
Most of your regular work is probably going to fall into this quadrant, unless you’re actually a firefighter.  Important milestones like creative deliveries can effectively be contained here, as well as more granular goals like, “need to review these preliminary wireframes.”  All items that appear in this column should be given a due date, so you can manage your time to accomplish everything more effectively.

Quadrant 3: Urgent, but Not Important
This is what is often considered the “Delegate” panel of the matrix. If you’re like me, the top two quadrants of your matrix have a habit of filling up by 11 AM on Monday.  What to do with the other things that have to happen but you simply don’t have time to do?  Delegate them to others. Proper delegation deserves its own blog post, since it’s an art in itself, but suffice it to say for this article that certain things should be left to others to do. It’s worth noting that Eisenhower had around 100 people on his personal staff during his presidency (Google tip: don’t expect polite results from “Size of Eisenhower’s Staff”), and those people worked for him for a reason. The people you delegate to have strengths and weaknesses; leverage them appropriately.

Quadrant 4: Neither Urgent Nor Important
This is the fun panel, since it contains all the fun stuff you do to prevent yourself from being productive. Truthfully, I don’t use this very much, since it’s only intended to be a reminder of the things that distract us from being productive, and, trust me, I know full well when I’m not being productive.  The lower right quadrant is reserved for the things you should not do: like attempt to <a href=“” target=“_blank”>finish Bioshock Infinite</a> at 2 AM on a Tuesday morning.  A future blog article I plan is when doing <i>nothing</i> is sometimes the best thing you can do, but that’s a different topic entirely.

That’s all it is!  Easy.  But you’ll be surprised at how quickly this simple exercise reduces stress and increases productivity. How many times have you been seated in a meeting watching someone freak out at the ENORMOUS list of to-dos they have, sure they’re using it as an excuse to not work, and knowing that they really only have to do two or three things to keep the trains running on time. When you look at the totality of the effort, it can seem overwhelming.  But breaking it down into manageable segments is a clear path to success.

There are multiple software solutions to help you manage your own priority matrix.  I like Eisenhower (duh), which has a really nice iPhone app featuring timers and calendar/email integration.  There is also the elegantly titled Priority Matrix, which is pretty awesome and in use by several people on staff here at IS.  But pencil and paper work great too.  No matter what your technique, forcing yourself to define and prioritize your goals will always make them easier to attain. In the words of my ol’ pal Ike:  “I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

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