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Eisenhower Matrix

Why do we need to prioritize decisions?

The speed at which we make decisions is heavily impacted by how we prioritize them. Decision velocity tends to suffer due to various biases that impact how we prioritize:

  • Our pursuit of perfect information: This is the analysis paralysis trap where we tend to gravitate towards certainty. Due to zero risk bias, We tend to delay decisions or even choose worse options in an effort to reduce risk - even if the expected value is higher for riskier decisions.
  • We don’t recognize non-decisions: We err towards doing what we’ve always done and we’re typically blind to this tendency. Every moment we continue to invest in something over something else is an implicit decision, but we don’t see it that way. Because it doesn’t take as much energy, status quo bias makes it difficult to challenge the status quo.
  • We tend to put off complex decisions: We’re allergic to complexity. If you work in a large organization, you may have noticed that when collaborating on big, complex problems, the group tends to regress focus towards menial topics. This is due to bikeshedding, also known as Parkinson’s law of triviality, which is our tendency to focus on trivial problems and avoid the hard, meaningful ones.

The Eisenhower Matrix for decision making

“It is often said that a wrong decision taken at the right time is better than a right decision taken at the wrong time.”
Pearl Zhu

The Eisenhower Matrix is a prioritization tool and productivity strategy developed by former President Dwight D. Eisenhower. It helps prioritize tasks on the basis of urgency and importance. It helps you to distinguish between tasks that are urgent and important, tasks that are important but not urgent, tasks that are urgent but not important, and tasks that are neither important nor urgent.

There are plenty of examples for how to use the classic Eisenhower Matrix to prioritize your work, but this focuses on using this method for decision making.

Communicating instead of deleting

A classic Eisenhower Matrix typically labels the ‘neither urgent nor important’ as ‘delete’. You’ll notice for decision making, we’ve labeled this quadrant ‘communicate’.

This Eisenhower Matrix still utilizes the four quadrants with the x-axis as urgency and the y-axis as importance, but what you might notice when using this method for decision making is that unlike tasks, even though there are decisions that are not important or urgent enough to start a dialog around, these typically take the form of questions that still need answering.

For that reason, we don’t believe you really end up with decisions that get ‘deleted’ like tasks that you wouldn’t do. Instead, these typically manifest as questions that need answering, and identifying, documenting and communicating those in a central decision log ensures that the answer to that question is automated in the future.

The quadrants

With that clarified, here is the modified Eisenhower Matrix for decision making with the four quadrants:

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Urgent and Important | Decide: This should immediately enter the decision making process. Though the speed at which we might make the decision will vary on the level of complexity, this should be visible and top of mind. To keep a manageable level of focus, it’s best to think about these decisions as truly the critical decisions that need to be made ‘this week’ or ‘this month’. If it’s beyond that horizon, the decision is likely Important, but not urgent.

Important, Not Urgent | Schedule: If the decision does not need to be in active dialog on a very near horizon, then it should be in this quadrant. These decisions should be quickly triaged to determine a date when it will move to the ‘urgent and important’ quadrant. The decision can always be rescheduled, but it’s important that it resurfaces for review.

Urgent, Not Important | Delegate: This quadrant can typically be relative to the decision maker (or group). Decisions typically make it to this quadrant because someone else has the authority to make the decision (e.g. a manager pushing a decision to an individual contributor) or it is relevant to another group (e.g. we need to decide whether or not we will allow image uploads, but a different team needs to decide if that breaks our security policy). Notice this starts to uncover dependencies that often fall through the cracks.

Neither Urgent, nor Important | Communicate: Again, this quadrant is modified from the original matrix where you would typically delete irrelevant tasks. In this case, you will often see decisions end up here because they’ve already been decided and haven’t been made explicit. For that reason, these decisions should be quickly documented and made visible in a decision log. Much like design teams create a ‘design language’ to answer design questions that often repeat (e.g. what font should we use? Do we use round buttons?), this becomes a similar repository to automate answers to decisions that are queried often.