You Need to Decide What Gets Priority, but How?

Identifying when you’ll do your research begins with identifying when you won’t.1

The time you set aside for other life priorities—e.g., your family, your job, your church—then provides a frame for the time you can structure to make progress on your research.

But all of this begs the question of how you decide what gets priority in the first place.

The Eisenhower Matrix

A common way of explaining how you should decide what gets priority is by citing a decision rubric attributed to Dwight Eisenhower. Portrayed as a two-by-two grid, the “Eisenhower Matrix” groups activities on continuums of urgency and importance.2

UrgentNot Urgent
ImportantQuadrant 1
Characteristics: Urgent, Important
Quadrant 2
Characteristics: Not Urgent, Important
Not ImportantQuadrant 3
Characteristics: Urgent, Not Important
Quadrant 4
Characteristics: Not Urgent, Not Important

On this scheme, it becomes clear that you want to spend as much time as possible as possible higher up the grid and farther to the right (i.e., Quadrant 2).3

No one likes to be perpetually investing in things that fall into either “not important” category (Quadrants 3–4). But Quadrant 1 (both urgent and important) also tends to be a less than ideal place to work.

It’s not always the case, but many urgent things could have been handled in ways that would have prevented them from becoming urgent in the first place.

You need to address Quadrant 1 items. But Quadrant 1 often involves crisis management and “putting out fires.” So, the more you work in Quadrant 1, the more likely you’ll be to experience stress and burnout.

Over time, you should be able to move what might be Quadrant 1 items into Quadrant 2 because of how you get out ahead of the urgency that characterizes Quadrant 1.

A Response for Each Quadrant

With these principles in mind, it’s possible to identify a characteristic response to activities that fall in each quadrant.4

UrgentNot Urgent
ImportantQuadrant 1
Characteristics: Urgent, Important
Response: Abbreviate
Quadrant 2
Characteristics: Not Urgent, Important
Response: Concentrate
Not ImportantQuadrant 3
Characteristics: Urgent, Not Important
Response: Separate
Quadrant 4
Characteristics: Not Urgent, Not Important
Response: Eliminate

For Quadrant

  1. Work over time to abbreviate how many activities fall into this category.
  2. Concentrate your attention on the activities that fall into this category.
  3. Separate yourself from activities in this category, whether by automating them or—if it’s an option—delegating them.
  4. Eliminate from your life as much as possible activities that fall into this category.

Conclusion

All of this is very well and good, but if the discussion stops there, a key element is missing. That is, simply saying that you should minimize Quadrants 3 and 4 and focus on moving Quadrant 1 into Quadrant 2 doesn’t immediately provide any help with deciding what falls in each quadrant to begin with.

What makes something urgent or not urgent? What makes it important or not important?

In short, helpful as the Eisenhower Matrix is, discussions of it often leave the criteria for deciding what creates urgency or importance mostly implicit. But with some careful thought about those criteria, it becomes much easier to decide what falls where.


  1. Header image provided by Oliver Roos

  2. See especially Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change, 25th anniversary ed. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013). 

  3. On this point, see Covey, Habits, 159–64. 

  4. Also helpful but with somewhat less nuance than I’ve tried to create below is the discussion by Taylor Pipes, “Work Effectively with the Eisenhower Matrix,” Evernote Blog, 2 May 2017. 

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