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The Eisenhower Matrix : there is more than just a matrix...

The eighth tool in our decision making tool series helps individuals to determine the importance and urgency of tasks. At the same time, it can be difficult to determine the true importance and urgency of tasks. This is more than just about the tool, but how to use the tool more effectively

Over 3 decades later in his best-selling book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey repackaged Eisenhower’s insights into a simple tool to prioritize tasks, now known as the Eisenhower Matrix (also known as The Time Management Matrix, The Eisenhower Box, The Eisenhower Method, and The Urgent-Important Matrix)

When would the Eisenhower Matrix be suitable?

Corporate Fire Fighting - getting lost in all the deepening tasks Finding It Difficult to delegate or substitute tasks Have long-term goals but no time or energy to make progress on them Have a hard time saying no to certain tasks

However, discerning the level of importance and urgency is in fact not something that comes natural to people. If a deadline is far away, we tend to reduce the likelihood of completing the tasks even though it could be important but not urgent.

People tend to choose the more impractical and ineffective approach.

That's the finding of two recent papers by a Johns Hopkins University researcher, who concludes that our misperceptions based on deadlines have a direct and negative impact on how we perform certain tasks. Both papers appeared recently in the Journal of Consumer Research.

A phenomenon called the "mere urgency effect" can blind people's perspective such that it can make people work on unimportant chore rather than an essential one.

Why do people do that?

It is not because of a logical reason ; such as judging the task easier to complete, wanting an immediate reward, or planning to get the chore done before moving on to the more important job—but simply because they feel they must beat an illusionary urgency (even when the task's duration is shorter than the deadline provided).

"People showing this effect are choosing objectively worse options over objectively better options," says lead author Meng Zhu, an associate professor of marketing at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School.

As shown in five experiments conducted by Zhu and her two co-authors, people's sense that they have a limited amount of time to complete a task can cause them to focus on task-completion windows rather than task payoffs. Consequently, they pursue the urgent task even when other items on their to-do lists are more important and promise better payoffs.

The mere urgency effect is more pronounced in people who perceive themselves as generally busy; their enhanced consciousness of life's ticking clock can make them more likely to pay closer attention to a task's supposed time of expiration.

Along the same line of reasoning, one of the experiments revealed that when participants were reminded of task payoffs at the moment of task choice, the mere urgency effect was diminished.

So how can we reduce the mere urgency effect?

  • Put important work on your calendar.

  • Expect important work to take longer than expected.*

  • Use values to guide decisions.

  • Establish short-term goals for long-term projects. Suppose you have an important task due at the end of the week. Create effective urgency by setting a goal to be completed by 3:00 p.m. today. (Set short-term daily goals for important long-term work.)

  • Turn off social media. Check email at scheduled intervals. Turn off email alerts. (Yes, not everyone can do this.)


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