OH MY GOODNESS.
Epiphanies can sneak up on you. You didn't even know you were thinking, until resplendent rays burst through the clouds of your mind, illuminating every detail and function of a subject you idly encountered ten years ago, and then forgot about until you saw it on Wikipedia last week. And then suddenly you can't stop talking: mumbling to yourself on street corners, declaiming like a toastmaster as you pace around your living room, resisting the urge to bore every friend in your phonebook.
Today I understand the Eisenhower Matrix.
It's a quick-and-dirty triage tool for daily productivity. Or tetrage, really; it is a matrix. You sort every task on your to-do list along two axes — is it important? and is it urgent? Then, based on your decision, you know what to do with the task.
* Important and urgent tasks, you just stop everything and do.
* Unimportant but urgent tasks, you delegate right away so someone else can do them.
* Important and non-urgent tasks, you defer. Set a time in your schedule when you can work on them uninterrupted. Book it now, so that they don't get lost; they are important, after all.
* Tasks that are neither important nor urgent, you can skip.
I've known about this system for ten years or more, but until today I had never figured out how to use it. The act of triage was exhausting. Everything cried out, "I'm urgent! I'm important! Do me now!" and sooner or later I would cave under the pressure and resort to a First-In-Last-Out or First-In-First-Out triage system — two methods that require no judgment whatsoever. On a good day, maybe I'd look at the urgency of each task and aim for Least-Latency-First-Out instead. But the full Eisenhower Matrix? No way. Too exhausting.
But as is usually the way with epiphanable ideas, I'd been looking at it backwards.
You don't sort a task into a category, and use that category to decide what to do with it.
The act of deciding what to do is what defines your categories. The moment you start doing a task right away, you are defining it as Important/Urgent. The moment you schedule it for later, you are defining it as Important/Not Urgent. If you put it off forever and hope it goes away, you are defining it as Unimportant/Not Urgent.
Your choice is the act of definition. At the end of the day, all of the tasks which you acted on, or scheduled, or delegated, or dropped, taken together in their sum, comprise your personal Eisenhower Matrix. That matrix is a measure of what, today, you considered important and urgent in your life. It's a diagnostic tool, not a prescriptive sorting mechanism.
And as soon as I understood that, in a blinding cranial moment, I realized how to use it as a sorting mechanism after all.
Specifically? You do just exactly as all of those how-to productivity books tell you to do. For me, the key point is separating my scheduling time from my working time ... which is to say, one of the things I have to do, every time I'm in scheduling mode, is schedule my next round of scheduling. That way I won't be tempted to get to it any sooner.
When I reach a new task — and any demand upon my time is a task, whether it's reading a one-line "thanks" email, or answering that person at my elbow, or picking up the phone — there are actually six decisions I can make, not four. And I don't have to think too hard about what I do. No matter what happens, I'll end up making one of these decisions anyway.
1. Maybe I'll just dive in and do the task right away. I'll answer the phone. I'll look up the statistics. I'll dive in and fix the server outage. If I immediately stop scheduling and start acting, then I have retroactively sorted this task into Important and Urgent.
2. Maybe I'll hand it off to someone else right away. I'll forward the email and say, "Could you look into this?" I'll redirect the phone call. However I do it, I've just sorted this task into Unimportant and Urgent. (Yes, it might be very important that the task happen. But it's not important that I be the one who does it.)
3. Maybe I'll realize that I need to hand it off to someone else, but the act of doing so is going to take a bunch of time: there's spec to write, or commentary on the proposal. I will book time on my schedule for this specific delegation.
(And here is the first new thing. This isn't a decision I've been in the habit of making; usually when something lands in this category, I ignore it because I don't have a good strategy. Sooner or later somebody asks me again, and eventually they ask me at a moment when I really can drop everything and write the spec immediately. But this makes for bad time management. My new epiphany, however, tells me that I'm not acting against my judgment: I am always and by definition acting within my judgment. But I can change my habits by making a practice of scheduling delegation.)
4. Maybe I'll realize that it has to be done, but I need to schedule time. So I'll do that. I've always been hit or miss with this Important / Not Urgent category, but it's not completely foreign to me.
5. The other new, foreign category is what happens when I can't make a decision. In the past I've just frozen. I know this thing has to be done at some point, but I can't even figure out its first step. I can't just schedule doing it, because "doing it" might take 40 hours or more. It needs to be broken down into tasks, and I don't have time or energy or brainpower to do that right now. Well, guess what: "Schedule queuing the dardnapple," is itself a schedulable task. So stick it on the calendar — give myself 15 or 30 minutes of uninterrupted dardnapple-queue-scheduling time, and soon snippets of the job will start filling up my calendar.
6. Maybe I'll ignore it. I'll delete the email. I'll write back and say, "This isn't really my decision." I'll leave it in the Inbox forever. If I take no other action, then I've just sorted this task into Unimportant / Not Urgent. And if, in retrospect, I don't like myself for this choice, then I can resolve to do better next time, and little by little I will tweak my own personal intuitive irrational sorting algorithm into shape.
Not four categories, but six. There are three different kinds of scheduling: schedule a task, schedule a delegation, and schedule the very act of scheduling. I've let too many tasks that belong in #3 and #5 fall into #6 through my own optimization paralysis. The same fate will doubtless befall many more, because you can change your perceptions overnight, but changing your actions takes practice. But starting today, I know how to improve.
Really it's very exciting.