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Avoid the "Urgency Trap" with the Eisenhower Matrix

Nov 23, 2020
(updated: Dec 1, 2022)
Max 5 min read

We start the day full of purpose and lofty ideas about what we’ll get accomplished. 

Then we sit down at our desks, start going through email and see our entire plan destroyed. Those exclamation mark emails from clients, colleagues or even family members -- they can totally throw off-course the plan you’ve created for yourself. 

At least, they can if you let them. 

How Do I Decide If A Task Is Actually Urgent? 

When people are asking you for your time, it’s only natural you'd want to help them however you can. It’s especially logical to do this when it’s a client’s request on the line. 

However, boosting something higher up your priority list just because someone else labels it urgent can actually do a disservice to you, them and your overall business success. Managing your time effectively is one of the most critical skills you can cultivate in the digital workplace, according to a recent study by IBM

It’s critical to determine whether a task meets your criteria for urgency, and fortunately, there’s a tool that can guide you through those decisions. 

Using the Eisenhower Matrix to Avoid the Urgency Trap

The Eisenhower Matrix assesses tasks and priorities on an axis of urgency and importance. Each task is mapped on a grid and can be managed accordingly. 

Your most important and most urgent items fall in the matrix’s top right corner, while those that are neither important nor urgent (typically tedious and unrewarding “fill in” tasks) are in the bottom left corner. 

What about tasks that can sometimes land you in an “urgency trap”? Those are in the bottom right; tasks that are of lower importance but are presented as urgent. 

These tasks might include things like unscheduled phone calls, last-minute non-critical project requests or meetings without a real agenda. They’re things that are presented as important and immediately necessary, but don’t always tie back to a goal you’re working toward. 

How to Use the Eisenhower Matrix in your Freelance Life 

It’s one thing to understand the Eisenhower Matrix concept. It’s another to actually use it in your freelance life, especially when you’re confronted with an “urgency trap” by a client or business partner. 

Start by outlining your priorities on the matrix. There are several ways you can do this, including: 

  • Completing an overall matrix for required business efforts, something you can easily keep in mind when new issues arise. This might be something you'd hang in your workspace or save as your computer desktop background for a quick reference. 
  • Creating a weekly matrix as a means of seeing where your efforts might be focused that week. Then, you’ll know how much bandwidth you can work with when something unusual pops up and threatens your productivity. 
  • Mapping out a daily matrix, so you can block time and ensure your most important, most urgent tasks are handled. Then, any extra time can go toward handling those unanticipated tasks, catching up on smaller items, or building strategic, long-term plans. 

Your overall matrix might make sense as an actual sketched-out visual representation, while your daily and weekly tasks could be created in a digital task management system. By managing them in an online format, it can be easier to adjust priorities where needed or to add new tasks without messing up or overcrowding a paper-version of your matrix. 

Last but not least, when an issue pops up that falls outside your criteria as both an important and an urgent task, it’s important to be prepared with an appropriate way to say no. 

  • You can reduce the possibility of falsely urgent tasks derailing you by blocking time for important projects and waiting to check emails or answer phone calls until the allotted block of time is finished. 
  • You can use a time tracker to determine how much time is going toward unscheduled tasks. 
  • You can have a standard draft email or message you use to let people know (politely but firmly) that you’ll handle their request at an appropriate time. 

As a freelancer, you’re in charge of your business, and you decide what is urgent. Make the right choices so you can preserve the value of your time, invest it in what matters and keep your business thriving.

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