There’s always more to do.
Years ago, when we first started our agency, friends often asked how things were going. In response, I developed a habit of describing entrepreneurship as a “10,000-item to-do list.” There was always something up next.
You had this prospect call. Then you needed to write the proposal. Then you needed to develop the budget. Then you needed to format the document. Then you needed to email it. Then follow-up. Then call to review. Then write a contract. Then send an invoice. Then schedule a kick-off.
Then. Then. Then.
We’re never done. It's true in running a business or just running our own lives. An infinite number of things are demanding our attention and efforts at any moment. So, how do we decide what to work on next?
This answer is sharply defined in Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art. He calls it “The Principle of Priority.”
You can see and make use of this idea best in a tool known as the Eisenhower Matrix. This framework is named after former President and five-star general Dwight D. Eisenhower, who popularized this line of thinking and described it as “a dilemma of modern man” in a 1954 speech. Here’s what it looks like:
The goal is to spend as much time in the first two boxes as possible. These are the things that make us happy, wealthy and wise – the things that unlock everything else.
Things that are important and urgent, like writing that proposal, applying for that job, or even putting out a literal fire: do them now.
Things that are important but not urgent, like rebranding your company, catching up with your old friend, or researching for your next book: decide when to do them.
When tasks fall below that threshold of importance, then we have to make choices.
Things that are urgent but not important, like cleaning your inbox, engaging on Twitter, or uploading a blog post: delegate them to somebody who can help.
Things that are neither urgent nor important, like attending bloated status meetings, reading through junk mail, or browsing through online shopping: delete these tasks from your schedule.
Is this a perfect model? Far from it – life’s too complex to fit everything into neat little boxes, and we’re not automatons that can ruthlessly cut away every tedious (or indulgent) distract in the bottom of the grid. We can't only do important things all the time. But, when we lay things out like this, it does help us understand the tradeoffs and hopefully prioritize what matters.
The problem is there are a lot of external incentives out there to get us to spend time on the urgent, especially by making us think that those things are actually important. Push notifications, flash sales, and other tactics are used by advertisers and product managers to get you to give them more money and attention. And we all fall for it.
Researchers call this the “mere urgency effect,” summarized in the Journal of Consumer Research by Meng Zhu, Yang Yang, and Christopher K Hsee as a “tendency to pursue urgency over importance,” even when the results are objectively worse. They continue, saying that “people behave as if pursuing an urgent task has its own appeal, independent of its objective consequence.”
Consciously and deliberately mapping out our work with a tool like the Eisenhower Matrix helps bring these mechanisms to light – and to ultimately overcome them. With this, we can organize and get through the most valuable and rewarding parts of that 10,000-item to-do list.