We live and work in a world of constant, competing demands.
Even those of us who don’t have the responsibilities of providing for a family and raising children can feel overwhelmed by the need to balance work and life — getting stuff done, maintaining our energy levels, exercising, looking after our relationships, taking time off, and so on.
So, how do we get organized, and become productive without succumbing to overwork? For many, their first instinct is to create a to-do list. This is a great first step – but we can go further.
If you’re someone who always has too much to do, and who periodically gets stressed out because they’ve constantly got projects due yesterday, then this article will tell you how to create a better system for managing your tasks.
The Eisenhower Principle
So, how can you improve your life, increase your free time, and still get more done? The answer: learn to distinguish between importance and urgency.
U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower famously made this distinction, stating: “What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.”
First, let’s define what we mean by each term.
Importance is a measure of how valuable something is. This is ultimately a personal judgement: what is very important to someone else might be very unimportant to you. For example, respond to all my emails might be very important for an administrator, but very unimportant for a doctor.
Urgency is a measure of how soon something needs to be done. Assuming that the deadline for a task is fixed, this is ultimately an objective judgement: what is due tomorrow is more urgent than what is due in a week. For example, write the conference paper for a week tomorrow is a less urgent task than write the presentation for tomorrow’s client meeting.
One of the reasons we tend to feel overwhelmed by our tasks is that we naturally respond to urgency more readily than we respond to importance. Too often, we’re working under extreme time pressure to complete relatively unimportant tasks, while leaving the important stuff to founder. To make matters worse, when we work this way, we don’t get much sense of achievement from the things we complete, because they’re generally not that important.
To be absolutely clear: this approach makes no sense.