What Is Important Is Seldom Urgent and What Is Urgent Is Seldom Important

Dwight D. Eisenhower? John Le Carré? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a popular time management scheme called the Eisenhower Decision Principle or the Eisenhower Matrix which is named after U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Every task is evaluated based on two axes: important/unimportant and urgent/not urgent. There are different rules for each type of task. For example, if a task is urgent but unimportant then it should be delegated to someone else.

The inspiration for the method comes from a saying attributed to the famous military and civilian leader. Here are two versions:

(1) What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.

(2) Most things which are urgent are not important, and most things which are important are not urgent.

I haven’t been able to determine when this was said by Eisenhower. Would you please examine this adage?

Quote Investigator: In 1954 Dwight D. Eisenhower visited the campus of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois and delivered an address to the Second Assembly of the World Council of Churches. He spoke a version of the adage, but he did not claim credit for it. Instead, he attributed the words to an unnamed “former college president”. In the following excerpt Eisenhower used the phrase “President Miller” while referring to Dr. J. Roscoe Miller who was the President of Northwestern University. Note that Eisenhower was not ascribing the saying to Miller who was a current president and not a former president. Boldface has been added:[ref] Website: The American Presidency Project, Speech delivered by: Dwight D. Eisenhower, Speech number: 204, Title: Address at the Second Assembly of the World Council of Churches, Location: Evanston, Illinois, Date: August 19, 1954, Website description: The American Presidency Project was established in 1999 as a collaboration between John T. Woolley and Gerhard Peters at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Archives contain 104,855 documents related to the study of the Presidency. (Accessed presidency.ucsb.edu on May 8, 2014) link alternate link [/ref]

Now, my friends of this convocation, there is another thing we can hope to learn from your being with us. I illustrate it by quoting the statement of a former college president, and I can understand the reason for his speaking as he did. I am sure President Miller can.

This President said, “I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”

Now this, I think, represents a dilemma of modern man. Your being here can help place the important before us, and perhaps even give the important the touch of urgency. And you can strengthen our faith that men of goodwill, working together, can solve the problems confronting them.

The above citation is the earliest relevant evidence known to QI. This instance of the expression did not use a qualifier such as “seldom” or “most”. But the next citation suggests that at least one listener added the word “seldom” to his memory of the remark.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1954 an insurance industry conference was held for the Life Office Management Association. A conference speaker stated that a person named Norris Pitt had heard the address given by Eisenhower in Illinois. But Pitt’s memory, as relayed by the speaker, differed somewhat from the speech transcript. The following instance was similar to the popular modern versions of the saying:[ref] 1954, Proceedings of the Annual Conference of Life Office Management Association, “Making Maximum Use of L.O.M.A. Facilities” by Morris G. Fuller (State Farm Life Insurance Company), Start Page 12, Quote Page 16, Published by Life Office Management Association, Fort Wayne, Indiana. (Verified with scans of article)[/ref]

Norris Pitt recently attended a session of the World Council of Churches in Evanston and heard President Eisenhower make the remark that the things that are urgent are seldom important and the things that are important are seldom urgent.

In 1962 near the beginning of his writing career John le Carré released a mystery titled “A Murder of Quality”. Le Carré later became a best-selling and acclaimed author of espionage fiction. His 1962 novel presented one-half of the adage with emphasis:[ref] 1980 (Copyright 1962), A Murder of Quality by John le Carré, Quote Page 111, Bantam Books, New York. (Verified with scans of the 1980 paperback edition of a book first published in 1962 by Walker and Company)[/ref]

“You have sales resistance to the dramatic, Brim; the rare gift of contempt for what is urgent. I know of a dozen people who would pay you five thousand a year for telling them everyday that what is important is seldom urgent. Urgent equals ephemeral, and ephemeral equals unimportant.”

In 1973 an article about “Managing a Small Business” in a Winnipeg, Manitoba newspaper printed a version of the adage linked to Eisenhower though the words were not enclosed in quotation marks. Eisenhower had died several years earlier in 1969:[ref] 1973 February 13, Winnipeg Free Press, Managing a Small Business by A. B. Brookes, Start Page 22, Quote Page 24, Column 1, Winnipeg, Manitoba. (NewspaperArchive)[/ref]

President Eisenhower used to arrange his affairs so that only the truly important and urgent matters came across his desk. He reportedly discovered that the two seldom went together. He found that the really important matters were seldom urgent, and that the most urgent matters were seldom important.

In 1975 “The Christian Science Monitor” newspaper of Massachusetts printed an article about the techniques used by celebrities and presidents to manage their time. Once again an instance of the adage without quotation marks was linked to Eisenhower:[ref] 1975 November 21, Christian Science Monitor, How They Manage Their Time: Celebrities: Breaking the Time Barrier; How Presidents Manage by Clayton Jones, Start Page 20, Quote Page 21, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)[/ref]

Nothing that was not both urgent and important was permitted to take up Mr. Eisenhower’s time. But he found the two rarely went together: important matters were seldom urgent and most urgent matters were seldom important. Ike’s press secretary reported: “The President makes every minute count.”

In conclusion, Dwight Eisenhower did present a version of the adage in a 1954 speech, but he credited an unnamed “former college president”. The versions of the saying with the word “seldom” may have been based on a faulty transmission of the speech. Alternatively, Eisenhower may have used more than one version of the expression.

Eisenhower received compliments for his time management skills, but QI does not know if he used the Eisenhower Matrix technique.

Image Notes: Dwight D. Eisenhower, official photo portrait in1959 via Wikimedia Commons.

Acknowledgement: Special thanks to Janet Choi whose query led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Great thanks to S. M. Colowick and Katherine Harper who identified the crucial 1954 Eisenhower speech. Also thanks to Dennis Lien for help with the 1954 insurance conference citation. Many thanks to the helpful local librarians in Florida. Thanks to Paul Duffill who notified QI that the link for the first reference was broken and an update was needed.

Update History: On May 5, 2023 the broken link for the webpage at American Presidency Project was updated. Two new links were provided.

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