Former US President Dwight Eisenhower was said to have popularised this time management system. By classifying tasks by it’s importance and urgency, Eisenhower’s Matrix was described as the holy grail to minimise distractions. I am sharing 2 problems I have with the matrix, how it does not fit my workstyle, and some wider reflections on living a highly-structured work/life-style.
Problem 1 – Everything is Important!!
I’d hate to think it is only me, but a great fallibility of mine when I started to use the matrix was that everything I thought of seems to be very important! At the beginning of my new role, there’s quite a bit of admin required setting up certain accounts, getting data access, or signing up to the relevant mailing lists etc. It meant that multiple conversations within and across institutes/ departments happened at the same time. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to rank or compare these tasks as they don’t appear to be too important, but I couldn’t do my job if these aren’t completed. On the other hand, I have got a list full of publications I am eager to catch up on the topic. I conflated “important to my job” and “important to satisfy my research interests”, and have been judging the importance of tasks with a fluctuating standard. This soon corrupted my matrix, with some tasks that are popping on and off every 2 days, and some staying on the matrix for eternity! Consequently, the bottom right quadrant – Not Urgent and Not Important – was always empty. I failed to utilise the tool to it’s fullest.
Problem 2 – Poorly Defined “Tasks”
The matrix is meant to be a task-focused tool, and not a progress-tracking tool to help facilitate learning. Continuation on the “never empty” tasks, apart from the misjudged importance, it is also the nature of the tasks that made them so difficult to tick off. An example is : learn Python. It is a key component of my work, highly important, probably quite urgent too [depends on what timescale we’re talking] if I want to have any real progress. But I could never cross off that task and call it done: even after I have completed 20 hours of tutorial videos, worked through a textbook, and coded my first little gadget on Python, I don’t feel confident enough to say that I have “learned Python”. The matrix is not meant for progress tracing, but rather for shortening to-do-lists. Some could argue that it was rather my non-SMART goals that the problem should be attributed to, and I shouldn’t judge the capabilities of the matrix based off that [SMART = Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound]. However, I do think it is not realistic to map out the whole learning process into tiny bits of surrogate markers of achievement. Does the ability to copy-and-paste multiple sections of codes from GitHub mean I am capable of doing a task? How many errors or test and failures are tolerable to develop a new python gadget for a “good” coder? Was it the “coder’s mindset” I should be valuing, or should I be taking examinations to benchmark my progress? The checklist approach to learning did not work for me.
We find comfort in structure. We needed the structure guide our attention, to renounce our mastery over time. Time is being broken down to smaller units with higher precision to monitor progress, efficacy and production. We sure are living in a faced-paced world, but it is not just the pace, but the accuracy and rigidity of time has consequentially projected itself as the more appropriate way of living, as the “truth” that is more true than how time is experienced in the past. The passing of time is universal (well, sorry theoretical physicists), but the construct, measurement and experience of time is manufactured and constantly updated by the society, by us. We fabricated this need for speed that in turn necessitates the need for more precise measurement. In cultures where the obsession on time has (yet to) taken over, e.g., in African Culture, their way of living and experiencing time was often remarked pejoratively. Injustice might masks themselves as progress; Greed as philanthropic; Derogation as inclusion.
Despite our emphasis on time, and the structure that comes with it to help us master time, not having spent enough “Quality time” with loved ones was said to be one of the most common regrets on the death bed in modern times. Not all “times” are born equal. Our ability to just relax and enjoy the moment are being chipped away, checkbox by checkbox. The guilt of wasted time spill over and burdens us even more. I am sure the structure has helped a lot in the industrial revolution to get the factories rolling, perhaps it will serve a similar role as AI replace half of the labour force. How do we find quality in our time, befriend time and not to compete with time? Tools like the Eisenhower’s Matrix should help us build this healthy relationship with time, not to see ourselves as the Lords of time. Be humble!
[Finished reading Beyond Measure by James Vincent, whom described the history of measurement of time quite nicely.]