“Quick question. Do you have a second?”
“Hey, you work in IT! Could you help me with this?”
“While you’re here…”
IT professionals have one of the most demanding jobs out there. On top of being responsible for critical infrastructures, you have to slog through endless lists of tickets, scramble to put out fires, plus deal with constant interruptions from end users.
If everything is top priority, then nothing is top priority. So how can you manage your workflow more productively? How can you find more time for those important projects with long-term value?
Enter … the Eisenhower Matrix, a very simple 2×2 matrix that helps you prioritize and organize your work. This time management strategy was named after Dwight D. Eisenhower, who once said in a speech:
I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.
The matrix works across all industries but can be especially effective for IT professionals, who are pulled in a million chaotic directions everyday.
The idea is simple: Take a few minutes to categorize tasks based on their urgency and importance. Learning how to triage is essential to maximizing your productivity.
“The matrix allows us to differentiate between simply getting things done and getting the right things done,” says Roi Ben-Yehuda, a trainer for LifeLabs Learnings and a lecturer at Columbia University.
But first, what exactly is the difference between “urgent” and “important”? Many people conflate the two, but they’re not one and the same.
It’s a conceptual distinction, says Ben-Yehuda. “Urgent tasks are those that have time pressure and a sense of immediacy, while important tasks are those that add long-term value to your goals,” he says. Understanding the difference will allow you to categorize your tasks more accurately.
At LifeLabs, they’ve aptly named the quadrants: (1) Fires, (2) Investment, (3) Deception, and (4) Escape.
Quadrant 1: Fires
Quadrant 1 consists of legitimate crises with real deadlines that should be handled immediately. They are both urgent and important. Examples in an IT environment are:
- Responding to network outages
- Resetting a VIP’s password
- Fixing a data breach
“The urgency of a task doesn’t just depend on what it is—it can also depend on who it’s requested by,” says Tim Burke, Director of IT at BetterCloud. For instance, he says, a password reset request from a CFO will probably take precedence over that of an intern’s.
Of course, workplaces can be unpredictable, so it’s expected that some fires will randomly pop up, especially in the world of IT. “But we also find ourselves in Quadrant 1 because we neglect certain tasks that eventually scream out and demand our immediate attention,” says Ben-Yehuda. “In order to address this, you need to pivot and set some time for Quadrant 2.”
Quadrant 2: Investment
The tasks in Quadrant 2 aren’t urgent, but they are important. They add long-term strategic value to you and your company. Examples for IT can include:
- Long-term strategic planning (e.g., staying up to date on new technology and methodologies, developing system security policies, negotiating contracts)
- Vendor evaluation
- End-user training
“Documentation is critical because you can’t grow your team without it,” says Burke. “Vendor evaluation is important too. The vendors I select reflect on my professional competence, so it’s a good idea to really get to know the product and the company that supports it. And the more end-user training you have, the less time they spend asking questions, and the more time my help desk has to devote quality one-on-one time with users.”
Ideally, if you spend enough time in Quadrant 2, you won’t have to put out so many fires in Quadrant 1. For instance, if you dedicate some time to server upgrades (not urgent but important), you may not have to deal with a sudden server failure (urgent and important) one day.
These tasks in Quadrant 2 are investments; they directly contribute to your long-term goals. They’ll have consequences if you don’t take care of them. But because they’re not pressing, many of us underestimate their importance and don’t spend enough time in this quadrant.
“Research shows that the most productive people do one simple thing differently—they calendar block their Quadrant 2 tasks. They decide exactly when they’ll do something and then treat that as sacred time and protect it,” says Ben-Yehuda. Even if you can’t spare much, try scheduling more time for these types of tasks.
Quadrant 3: Deception
Quadrant 3 contains tasks that need to be done urgently (“I need this ASAP!”), but aren’t important. They don’t help our own goals. They’re almost always important for somebody else, Ben-Yehuda says. He warns people to be very careful about this quadrant: “When you’re here, you’re making pseudo-progress. And the problem is that it feels like you’re making real progress.”
Some IT examples include:
- Regular password resets
- Group creation
- Fixing hardware issues
- Responding to emails, messages
For instance, Burke says that hardware issues—like swapping out pieces of old hardware—can be delegated. And if you’re a one-man IT shop, you can delegate those kinds of tasks to third parties.
Our Addiction to Urgency
Many of us spend too much time here. But why are we, as a society, so susceptible to getting stuck in Quadrant 3? Why do we find urgent matters so, well, urgent? Why do we feel compelled to act so immediately?
“We are biased towards managing direct stimuli. Our ancestors survived because they could react to threats straightaway and could take advantage of situations with short-term payoffs,” says Ben-Yehuda. “Modern technology, with its relentless call for our attention, feeds off this bias and exacerbates the situation. The danger here is that you are constantly being reactive and are unable to set and protect time for deep work.”
To move out of this quadrant, he suggests asking yourself the following questions:
- Can I do it later?
- Is this really the most important thing right now?
- Am I the best person to do it? (Can I delegate this?)
- How can I streamline this going forward?
For IT professionals, automating some of the more repetitive and mundane tasks can free up valuable time that could be better spent in Quadrant 2. By replacing manual processes, IT has the opportunity to focus on new business requirements and solutions, as well as serve as strategic advisors. (Full disclosure: BetterCloud can help you do this.)
Quadrant 4: Escape
These activities aren’t really urgent or important. These can include:
- Watching TV
- Playing games
- Browsing the web
Though some experts recommend avoiding this “slacker” quadrant, Ben-Yehuda says there is indeed value here. “In actuality, our brains work best in intervals (work a bunch, rest for a little). So don’t be afraid to recharge yourself by taking a break, playing some games, and stretching a little. Your body and mind need it,” he says.
Use this Matrix in Four Easy Steps
- First, categorize everything on your To-Do list into these four categories.
- Determine what tasks you can immediately automate or delegate, and make a plan for delegating other tasks (e.g., reassigning responsibilities across your team, or perhaps justifying a new hire).
- Carve out time for your long-term investment projects in Quadrant 2, and design a plan for sticking to it (e.g., blocking off calendar time, asking others not to schedule over that block, not getting distracted).
- Monitor your progress on a weekly basis, and don’t forget to recharge as needed!