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hether you are a businessman, a multitasking mother of four, a Michelin star chef, or a nuclear physicist, productivity is the foundation of your success. Economics defines productivity as the quantity of output produced by one unit of input within one unit of time. The standard calculation gives us output per unit of time, meaning that we can have an estimate of the amount of work done for an hour of labor. The overambitious individuals can go even further, and compare the result to the total amount of work expected or desired to be completed for the set time. 

As it follows, an increase in physical productivity leads to a corresponding increase in the value of labor. This results in raised wages which serve to explain why employers look for education and experience altogether… 

[I know, I know. I’m aware of the vicious cycle, I need a job to get experience so that I can find myself a job. Don’t get me started…]

It is accepted that knowledge and experience increase employees’ human capital, and make them get a substantial amount of work completed sometimes even before the deadline. Correct me if I’m wrong, but this seems to be the goal of employers and employees around the world. The main question is: How to juggle multiple time-sensitive tasks and projects and still get some time off? 

On this note, let me introduce you to one bright man who managed to solve this dilemma (and many more) problems of the past century who was quoted as saying: 

”I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.” 

Dwight Eisenhower

Who was He?

Dwight D. Eisenhower (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The 20th century presents Dwight Eisenhower known to have lived one of the most productive lives you can imagine. Eisenhower was the 34th President of the US, serving two terms, until 1961. 

During his presidency, he launched programs that directly led to the development of the Interstate Highway System, the launch of the internet, the program for exploration of space, and the peaceful use of alternative energy sources, marked by the Atomic Energy Act. 

He was a bright man even before the elections when he was a five-star general in the US Army, served as the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II, and was in charge of planning and executing invasions of North Africa, France, and Germany. He also served as President of Columbia University and became the first Supreme Commander of NATO. You will be surprised to know that he even found time to pursue hobbies like golfing and oil painting! 

It seems fair to conclude that Eisenhower had an incredible ability to sustain his productivity. And for that reason, it is no surprise that his tool for time management, and productivity has been a subject of interest to many. Over three decades later in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey converted Eisenhower’s thoughts and recommendations into a simple tool to prioritize tasks. 

The Mere-Urgency Effect and the application of the Eisenhower Matrix

A study published in the Journal of Consumer Research meant to examine how people decide what to work on when faced with tasks of mixed urgency and importance concluded that human attention is drawn to time-sensitive tasks over tasks that are less urgent even when the less urgent task offers greater rewards.

This psychological quirk — dubbed the “Mere-Urgency Effect” — explains why many people struggle with time management. In essence, we’re more likely to focus on tasks with a deadline over tasks without one, regardless of their long-term payoffs. 

Observations suggest that the Mere-Urgency Effect is more prominent in people who describe themselves as “busy” by nature. The same researcher suggests that those who consider themselves “busy” are, in general, more likely to select urgent tasks with lower payouts due to the fixed task duration. Happily, the research points out that this can be reversed: when participants were prompted to consider the consequences of their choices at the time of selection, they showed to be more likely to choose the important task over the urgent one, meaning that if one keeps the long-term importance of non-urgent tasks in view, one can overcome the pull toward urgent distractions and focus on what is of real importance. To do so, one can use the principles of the Eisenhower Matrix.

The Eisenhower Matrix (also known as The Time Management Matrix, The Eisenhower Box, The Eisenhower Method, and The Urgent-Important Matrix). is a simple tool for considering the long-term outcomes of the completion of both large-scale projects and simple daily tasks by dividing them into four quadrants. It’s a simple decision-making framework, applicable in all aspects of life.

Quadrant 1: Urgent & Important tasks and projects. Suggest being completed immediately.

Quadrant 2: Not Urgent & Important tasks and projects. Suggest being scheduled for completion.

Quadrant 3: Urgent & Unimportant tasks and projects. Suggest being delegated for someone else to complete.

Quadrant 4: Not Urgent & Unimportant tasks and projects. Suggest being deleted.

Looking at the figure above, are your tasks urgent? If so, are they of great importance to you and your performance? 

In a real-world setting, as supposed, the distinction between urgent and non-urgent, important and not important is much more complex than under experimental conditions. Steven Covey defines urgent matters as those requiring immediate action, and usually come with clear consequences if not completed. In this sense, they appear unavoidable, albeit devoting too much time “putting out fires” can result in undesirable burnout. On the other hand, important matters are considered those that contribute to long-term goals and life values. In this meaning, they require planning and thoughtful action. When one focuses on the so-called important matters, one makes use of his time, energy, and attention, rather than mindlessly expanding these resources. However, what is important is subjective and depends on one’s values and personal goals, meaning that no one else can define what is important for you. 

“Who can define for us with accuracy the difference between the long and short term? Especially whenever our affairs seem to be in crisis, we are almost compelled to give our first attention to the urgent present rather than to the important future.”

Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1961 address to the Century Association 

The Eisenhower Decision Matrix serves as a framework to help one cut through the clutter and get the work done on time. The tool allows for task prioritization and delegation based on importance and urgency. In other words, by using it, one will eventually end up gaining valuable time through having better time management which results in enhanced productivity, better performance, and greater results. 

And here comes the old but gold: Work smart, not (necessarily) hard!

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