Eisenhower vectors (3 min. read)

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This past week, during a team off-site at work, I was re-introduced to the Eisenhower matrix; a handy device for prioritizing tasks and deciding how and when to handle them. It gets its name from this quote from US President Dwight D. Eisenhower:

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

(In the speech, Eisenhower in turn attributes it to a “former college president”, and this general principle is also known by other names like “ABCD analysis”, but let’s stick with the Eisenhower nomenclature).

At its core, the basic idea is that every task can be be classified as important (or not), and urgent (or not), and that these two are independent variables. Things can be urgent without being important, and vice-versa. Once classified in this way, the rule of thumb is to do things that are both important and urgent, schedule things that are important but not urgent, delegate things that are urgent but not important, and drop tasks that are neither important or urgent.

While we were going through some exercises on prioritization using the Eisenhower matrix, it struck me that there’s a facet of tasks that factors into their priority but isn’t represented in the matrix: a task’s potential. Some tasks are neither important nor urgent right now, but have the potential to become one or the other at some future point in time. And this potential should be factored into that task’s priority.

(You could argue that a task’s potential should factor into how important it is, but I think it’s a useful exercise to treat potential as a third facet so that you are forced to take it into account.)

So, let me introduce you to the Eisenhower vector. Like (Euclidian) (bound) vectors, an Eisenhower vector is an arrow with a point of origin, a direction, and a magnitude (or length). The point of origin represents the current classification of the task along the importance and urgency axes of the Eisenhower matrix. The direction signifies how the importance and urgency is expected to change over time. And the magnitude dictates how quickly you think the task is likely to develop in that direction. For example:

Eisenhower vector for a task whose origin is not urgent or important, but is trending towards important An Eisenhower vector for a task that is currently not important or urgent, but is gradually becoming more important.

This task would normally be dropped, since it’s not important or urgent. But, we’re expecting that it will become more important over time, potentially crossing the boundary into important-but-not-urgent territory. And as a result, it may deserve to be scheduled (with a lower priority) rather than dropped. Compare that to this task:

Eisenhower vector for a task whose origin is urgent, not important, and rapidly trending towards less urgent An Eisenhower vector for a task that is currently quite urgent, not important, and expected to rapidly become less urgent.

It’s currently very urgent (a customer has sent you four emails in the past five minutes), but you expect that that urgency will fade rather quickly if the task is not done immediately. This, too, should affect the task’s prioritization relative to other tasks. Given the perceived urgency, the customer in question probably won’t be happy about you not doing it (they never are when things feel urgent), but it may still be worthwhile down-prioritizing the task over something else that’s currently less urgent, but will remain as urgent.

Note that unlike the original Eisenhower matrix, Eisenhower vectors do not have a general rule for what the direction and magnitude imply as far as task management goes (i.e., do/schedule/delegate/drop). Instead, they are a means to help you visualize (and thus bring into focus) a task’s trend-line so that you don’t forget about that part while prioritizing. If you want a very non-scientific rule of thumb, consider prioritizing Eisenhower vectors as though they were a point at the mid-point of the arrow.

That’s all — happy tasking!