Be More Like Ike

It’s safe to say that Dwight D. Eisenhower was a productive guy. He built that productivity on some basic principles that were codified by Steven Covey in his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, calling it the “Eisenhower Decision Principle.” When faced with a task, using those principles, we prioritize it into one of four “quadrants” on Eisenhower’s decision matrix.

  • Beat the Nazis in WWII
  • Elected president twice
  • Launched programs that gave us highways, space exploration, and the internet

So his decision making process worked. I’m by no means the first to come up with this: James Clear did a great post on this (with a spreadsheet) and the excellent Art of Manliness put together some solid words as well.

“What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.”
Eisenhower believed that urgent things are rarely important, and important things are usually not urgent. It’s a profound statement that makes it possible to deal with any to-do list, no matter how daunting.

I mean, c’mon, the man did lead the invasion of Europe that eventually ended the second world war.

So maybe he knew a couple of things about priorities and planning.

No matter how big our “to do” list is, it can be broken down into two categories:

  • Urgent: Things that can’t wait
  • Important: Things that shouldn’t wait

What I mean by that is that the important things we should be working on we push aside.

Think of your tasks another way:

  • Urgent: Stuff you do to keep from getting fired
  • Important: Stuff you should to do get promoted

Granted, there’s value in not getting fired. Makes it easier to pay the bills, anyway.

Dwight the decider

Covey and others took that one step further and built out a decision matrix.

That’s known as the Eisenhower box.

Notice that urgency and importance are the two axis.

Each quadrant borrows some from the Getting Things Done methodology developed by David Allen.

All of your tasks can be broken up into these four categories:

  1. Do: Do it now
  2. Decide: Do it later
  3. Delegate it: Dump it (in someone else’s lap)
  4. Delete: Ditch it

The more you put into quadrants 3 and 4, the more time you’ll have for quadrant 2.

So what do the quadrants meant?


Things that have to be done or the world ends.

  • project deadline
  • frantic client
  • your house is on fire

Much of the time things end up here because we didn’t deal with them in quadrant 2.

Or, more likely someone else didn’t deal with it in their quadrant 2.

And now, what should have been something you could have all dealt with calmly, is on fire.

Still, deadlines are deadlines, and sometimes things can’t wait.


Things that need doing and are tied to your personal goals.

  • working out
  • researching your next project
  • spending time with family/friends

If you’ve got goals for this year, then things you’re doing to reach those goals?

Those are all Quadrant 2.

We’re trying to spend as much of our time as we can on the important stuff.

There’s a tendency now to call things like this “Deep Work,” or “Focused Work,” and I like how that sounds.

The idea is to shut off all the other quadrants for as long as you can and work on something that’s going to move things forward.


Things that need doing, and can be delegated.

  • meetings
  • travel arrangements
  • social media shares — by posting something to social media you’ve delegated its distribution to your followers

At a certain point in your career, you’re going to be the one getting dumped on.

And finding time for deep work is going to be hard.

The challenge will be as you move up in the world, or your kids get older and need less of your time, to delegate as much as you can.

There’s a reason people like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates have time each day to read and learn.

Being a billionaire helps, but they’ve also figured out how to have other people handle the details.

They’re there to think about the big stuff and move things forward.

My least favorite one in this list?


As a rule we hold too many of them.

So if you can figure out how to send a minion to that next status update?

Go for it.


Stuff that isn’t really all that helpful, but is fun anyway.

  • watching TV
  • junk social media
  • trivia

A word on “junk” social media: if you use Twitter to amplify your brand, then spending some time getting caught up with followers and their responses to your tweets is a worthwhile investment of your time.

But if you’re spending a lot more time looking for another puppy doing the bucket challenge for a duckface selfie, then you’re consuming the electronic version of a glazed donut.

Fun? Sure.

Satisfying? Briefly.

Getting you anywhere in life?

Not particularly.

If we do this right, we spend more time in Quadrant 2. Although Quadrant 4 is a lot more fun, I’m finding that if I label a task as something to be “deleted,” I’m less likely to waste my time doing it.

A quick note on importance: figuring out the difference between “urgent” and “important” is key to making this work. The more you can define what’s important for you, the less time you’re going to spend dealing with things that are urgent. Or, when those urgent things do come up, you know you’ve already got a plan for dealing with the important stuff later.


One of the key tenets of GTD is the review process. This happens both daily and weekly, and is how you re-prioritize things from the to do list. At the end of every day, I look ahead to the next day and figure out what tasks need doing tomorrow.

Before putting them in the “Today” pile, I run those through the Eisenhower matrix, which I’ve tweaked with a little nod to those in uniform.

Like it? Want one? Get the poster.

For some of you, the boxes are pretty self-explanatory.

For the rest, here’s the breakdown.


Mortars and rockets are fired at someone else’s whim. These things are out of my control, and will take up my attention for the day. I can plan some of these (like deadlines), but others are just going to come up and need to be dealt with.


Operation Overlord was the Allied codename for the invasion of Europe in 1944. D-Day was a Quadrant 1 task, but it took a whole lot of work in Quadrant 2 to get there. It’s true that I’m not storming the beaches at Normandy. Still, I’d like my life and my family’s life to head somewhere with a purpose. So I’m working every day on moving our lives forward. I try to balance every day with work as well as personal goals I’m working toward for the day.


Anyone who has ever known the joy of filling out a 5988 knows how painful motor pool operations can be. Avoiding vehicle maintenance means at some point you’ll have a broken vehicle, so while it’s not going to move you closer to your goals, not spending time in Quadrant could still be a problem.


The reflective belt is useless, pointless, and just generally a waste of everyone’s time. It’s a running joke and a sign that your fighting force has its priorities all wrong. So drop the belt and get yourself back to planning the demise of Nazi Germany.

I am terrible about sticking with a decision or a plan or a process. I’ve been working on making small changes to fix that lately. That doesn’t mean I won’t change my processes or tools that I use, because that’s part of growth. The main challenge for me is working the system once I’ve put it together. Planning’s easy, it’s the execution that’s tough.

That means doing my daily/weekly reviews of my open tasks.

That means saying “no” to writing ideas that make it easy for me to avoid finishing a larger project.

That means taking time back from the unimportant tasks that aren’t urgent and putting them toward more important things.

And now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some lists to make.

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