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A common phrase in business development courses and training sessions is: Work Smarter, Not Harder. Sounds easy enough, but exactly what’s entailed to achieve the same level of productivity with less work?

Understanding how to work smarter is a lesson in priorities; knowing which parts of the business, project, or job are both important and urgent; and which are neither of those two things. How can a business owner identify and define such priorities? Drawing a box on a sheet of paper is a good starting point. Next, fill in the box with two centered vertical and horizontal lines, creating four equal quadrants. The upper left box is for items that are Urgent and Important; the upper right box is for items that are Important, but Not Urgent; lower left is Urgent, but Not Important; and lower right is Not Urgent and Not Important.

Although similar charts can be found on posters, fliers, and PowerPoint presentations worldwide, according to the website, the concept’s origin is from a 1954 speech by former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower to the Second Assembly of the World Council of Churches, quoting Dr. J. Roscoe Miller, president of Northwestern University, stating: “I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.” This “Eisenhower Principle” is said to be how he organized his workload and priorities.

According to this principle, Important activities create results that align with our priorities, goals, and overall professional objectives. Urgent activities demand our immediate attention, but require energy that may take away from other priorities. If a task is not Important and Not Urgent, then it should not receive our attention at all. Deleting these items from the To-Do list will reduce stress, free up additional time, and streamline the workflow process. The sweet spot of working smarter entails laser-like focus on items included in the top right Important, but Not Urgent box. When a priority is not Urgent, there is ample time to plan and create an effective strategy to fulfill the goal.

Based on this exercise and model, on average, professionals are wasting anywhere from 25 to 50 percent of their time on tasks that are not Important, requiring them to work harder to get everything done. In addition, depending upon how many items are included in the Not Important, Not Urgent box, it’s also possible to spend quality time on useless activities that should not receive any attention at all, which subsequently absorbs precious time from other projects and activities that require 100 percent of our time, energy, and focus.

So what are the final takeaways? The key to working smarter is to eliminate time-wasters and activities that drain resources from your company. Delete or remove Non-Urgent and Unimportant items altogether, and realign your team and resources around projects that are Important, but not Urgent. Handle immediate crises that fall into the Urgent and Important box, but then institute steps to avoid repeat mishaps. If something is Urgent, but Not Important, it most likely is created by an external distraction or internal habit like procrastination that can be managed or avoided in the future. Believe it or not, it is possible to do less and accomplish more, and it begins with effective time management to become an efficient time manager.

Want more tips and information about how to improve your business productivity? Visit and learn more online at and connect on Twitter @TheInstituteNC.