The Eisenhower Matrix is the Perfect Tool for Founders

by Joseph Bien-Kahn in October 29th, 2020

In a recent conversation for our OPERATORS series, we asked Human Interest founder Roger Lee to tell us the most helpful management tool he’s acquired over his years as a founder. After pausing for a moment to think back through his two decades of founding, he responded with an answer that surprised us: “The Eisenhower Decision Matrix which was popularized by the book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” 

The Eisenhower Matrix is a framework to sort your to-do list into four quadrants: Urgent And Important; Urgent But Not Important; Not Urgent But Important; and Not Urgent And Not Important. By labelling each task and prioritizing the ones that land on the top half of the matrix, a founder is equipped with an unexpectedly valuable tool: time to tackle the important stuff. Lee admitted he’s far from a master of making time for the Not Urgent But Important things, but the Eisenhower Matrix has helped him remember that that’s often the task that leads to the long-term growth of a startup.  

Back-office work tends to sit near the bottom of the Matrix, but that doesn’t mean it can be ignored. Instead, it often gets pushed aside until the last possible second, and often founders then scramble and mess it up. At AbstractOps, our goal is not to automate the top half of the Eisenhower Matrix. Instead, we’re working on the bottom two quadrants, finding ways to simplify and streamline the Not Urgent And Not Important and the Urgent And Not Important operations tasks that rob founders of the time they need to solve the truly essential problems. 

What Is The Eisenhower Matrix?

The Eisenhower Matrix was named for President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who once quoted a university professor in a speech who told him: “I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”

In Stephen Covey’s 1989 bestseller The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, the author reframed Eisenhower’s prioritization of the important over the urgent into the Eisenhower Matrix. 

The goal of the Eisenhower Matrix is to combat the deadline effect, which forces us to prioritize the urgent task even when it’s less important (and even if it’s much less likely to bring value to our company). As any founder can tell you, there’s always something due ASAP

By grouping each task into a quadrant, we can start to train ourselves away from simply scrambling to finish the urgent at the cost of the important.

What Gets Put Where?

The Eisenhower Matrix is helpful as a simple reframing tool, but it can be essential if you begin to use it as a means of delegating. 

The Top Left Quadrant (Urgent And Important) is also called “Do It” — as the founder, you have the skillset and the knowledge to take on the essential and pressing to-dos. This might be the pitch deck, the email to investors, or building the MVP; these are tasks that shouldn't be delegated, because they need your attention and expertise. 

The Bottom Left Quadrant (Urgent But Not Important) is also called “Delegate It” — as the founder, a certain moment comes when you can’t do everything. It’s an awkward moment, but also a sign that your startup is starting to make it. The founders become successful are the ones that can make the transition from founder to boss. The “Delegate It” tasks could include scheduling, writing blog posts, responding to lower-stakes emails, and other time-sensitive but not make-or-break tasks.

The Bottom Right Quadrant (Not Urgent And Not Important) is also called “Delete It” — these are the distractions that any highly successful person knows they have to avoid. As we said in the “Compound Growth” blog post: “There is value in distraction — a life without it would be extremely dull. But it’s important to be clear-eyed in how one spends their time and energy.” So, really think about what can be deleted from your packed schedule; for a startup, the founder’s time is money. 

The Top Right Quadrant (Not Urgent But Important) is also called “Schedule It” — this quadrant is the reason the Eisenhower Matrix is such a valuable tool. Being able to see the important tasks that don’t have a clear ticking clock is what allows for long-term, high-value strategic thinking. The ability to carve out time for the “Schedule It” tasks is what separates the great founders. Make time for a strategy session or to train an employee or to network; it’s these deadline-free tasks that end up paying off exponentially down the line. It might feel indulgent to grab a coffee with an investor when you’re not fundraising while there are a million little fires to put out, but being fully present and engaged over that coffee is essential. Much of the firefighting can be delegated; the future-looking tasks are what the founder is for.

Your Judgment Is A Crucial Factor

In an article on Entrepreneur, writer Anna Johansson laid out five common mistakes that keep us from prioritizing effectively. The first four are issues we’ve covered that the Eisenhower Matrix is made to solve for:

  1. Not dedicating time to prioritization.
  2. Failing to consider the big picture.
  3. Getting distracted by the little things.
  4. Not delegating.

But it’s her fifth mistake that was fascinating and deserves a longer look:

Refusing to adapt to new information.

Johansson explains that though priorities need to be firmly set in order to get work done, “occasionally new information will arise that forces your hand.” She uses the example of a founder working to improve operations and being confronted with a client emergency — this is a classic example of the Urgent And Important taking precedence over the Not Urgent But Important.

As evidenced by this example, for the Eisenhower Matrix to work effectively, you have to trust your judgment on what goes where. Just as importantly, you have to admit when you’ve made a mistake. Hopefully, your cofounder will feel confident in calling you out, but if you want to be successful, you have to be both firm and adaptable. It’s a tricky mix, but it’s key to building something of value from scratch. Being a founder is hard, but the Eisenhower Matrix can make it a bit easier.

Do The Average When Everybody Else Is Going Crazy

As we saw at the top of this article, President Eisenhower liked to quote others in his speeches. This one, which he credits to Napoleon, is great advice to any founder: “He said, the great leader, the genius in leadership, is the man who can do the average thing when everybody else is going crazy.”

At its core, the Eisenhower Matrix is just a simplifying tool. It’s a box that lets you step outside the crazy of founding and do the rational and valuable thing. Often, that’s enough. 

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