This is a planning approach that combines the ideas behind the Eisenhower Matrix method for time management (which focuses on identifying the importance and urgency of every task) and Flow theory from positive psychology (which states that the flow state in work can be found when the challenge of a task matches our skill.)
In practice, using the Eisenhower Method does not (by itself) help one to manage one’s work in a way that is sustainable. This requires some degree of managing not only your time, but also your energy, which is where flow theory will be especially useful.
This can apply to work and personal creative projects; and be adapted to other kinds of work. Read on for a deeper dive, and a blank matrix worksheet you can use.
Although I’ve used (and recommended) the Eisenhower matrix a lot since I learned about it ~2008 (at which point it deeply influenced my approach to managing creative work), I have a few amendments that feel important:
- The idea of keeping unimportant items does not make sense. If it is not worth doing, why is it there? Just remove it. The Eisenhower matrix typically suggest to delegate the things that are urgent but not important, and I strongly disagree with that, because…
- …if something can be delegated, delegate it. This should not depend on the “importance” of a task. In fact, it is essential to do the difficult work that would allow delegating important tasks: to share knowledge, and to practice communicating with & ultimately trusting the people you work with. This is admittedly challenging when it comes to creative work and knowledge work, but, in my experience, it is much more available than is typically assumed (though it takes practice ahead of time of need). If urgent and important tasks cannot be delegated, this creates a serious bottleneck when anyone involved wants or needs time off. In that case, it is precisely the important tasks that need to be delegated, and if there is no established practice of delegation, then there will be pain and/or chaos.
- The tasks that tend to be grouped into not important are those that require less energy and focus. No one can be 100% “on” all the time, and energy mismatch contributes to burnout. To be in the state of flow requires matching the energy that you have with the right challenge of task. This depends on your skills generally, but also varies during the day a great deal. Avoid as much as possible a task that seriously doesn’t match the energy that you have; if you’re feeling extremely “on” and creative, the repetitive task will be draining; if you’re feeling more low-key, the creative task (that on another occasion would be stimulating and welcome) can become overwhelming.
- Finally, many of the most important things are not urgent. In fact, quite often many of the “urgent” things are not urgent, either. It is essential to (a) be extremely conservative about what counts as “urgent” (“must be done immediately”) and (b) consistently spend most of your time on the non-urgent things, because that is where most of the work happens.
In the energy planning matrix (below), I’ve listed four types of energy based on my own experience and that of people I’ve worked with. If you’d like to use this tool, I encourage you to reflect on the kinds of energy states that you experience, and change the phrasing to ring more true. If possible, arrange them from relatively “higher” to “lower” energy.
It is vital to point out that no one of these states is more “important” than any other. Any creative project requires all four, for example:
- Generative & Creative: to execute the project
- Collaborative & Supportive: to give/get feedback on work in progress
- Organizing & Documentation: documentation is often not the highest urgency/priority (especially when working mainly alone) but it makes it possible to potentially delegate if that’s relevant; to incorporate feedback; to ultimately share it; and to re-use aspects of the project in the future, either directly or as an inspiration
- Repetitive & Housekeeping: this is absolutely crucial — to implement weird little rules & requirements for a funded project; to maintain a spreadsheet of you literary magazine submissions and look up new places; to fix weird spreadsheets; whatever your actual project, it likely has many minor vital little sub-tasks that can and should be best done not during some creative-energy peak
This is just the first iteration of this planning matrix, so I’d be very happy to hear ideas or feedback (here, on LI, or IG.) And if you’ve re-named any of the energy categories and are open to sharing, I’d love to hear those, too!
Recommended further reading:
- Flourish / Seligman — easy to read, and introduces positive psychology concepts including flow, but also other practices that might be helpful along with some interesting research context
- Flow / Csíkszentmihályi — more in depth on the topic of flow in particular
- How Emotions are Made / Barrett — though not directly related to this article, reading this book a couple of years ago was massively influential on how I now understand and react to various emotional and energy states
My older writing on attention, energy, and time management:
- 2022: Different activities have different demands on time & energy, and therefore clock time (number of hours spent) can be less important than calendar time (number of days over which that time is spent)
- 2016–2021: “Should I Do The Thing?” is a diagram — not really to make a decision, but to reveal the decision one already recognizes to be right
- 2016: Some reflections about emails. (“Are you stressed out about responding by end-of-day Friday because they gave you a deadline or because you made the deadline up at some point? Don’t make promises you can’t (or don’t want to) keep”)
- 2015: Some prompts for working with (rather than against) a distracted state of mind (“Make tiny plans and consistently violate them: Make a plan where to walk to: “I will go get a burrito!” Do not stick to the plan; as you walk, look for things that are more interesting than the plan. When you deviate from the plan, form a new plan. Do not stick to that, either.”)