How to use the Eisenhower Matrix for effective time management
Dwight D. Eisenhower – a two-time US president and five-star general during the Cold War was known to be a very productive person. He figured out a clever way to prioritize his tasks by dividing them into either urgent or important. The Eisenhower Matrix.
These two categories seem similar but opposite in reality. Eisenhower discussed this concept in his 1954 speech, which was later formalized by the best-selling author Stephen Covey in his famous book “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”.
What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.Dwight D. Eisenhower
In this tutorial, we will explain what the Eisenhower Matrix is as well as how to use it and implement it in your daily life. We also share tips and strategies to get started.
Eisenhower Matrix – Overview
The Eisenhower Matrix, also known as the Urgent-Important Matrix, is a technique that helps you prioritize tasks by importance and urgency. It was invented by Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th president of the United States (1953 – 1961) who also served as a general in the US Army and NATO’s first supreme commander.
Throughout the course of his life, Eisenhower had to constantly decide between various everyday tasks, which took up a lot of time. Therefore, he invented the famous Eisenhower Matrix to help himself and others sort and prioritize tasks by urgency and importance.
In the Eisenhower Matrix technique, you sort out all tasks into four quadrants and prioritize them by urgency and importance. The four quadrants in the Eisenhower Matrix are:
- Quadrant 1 – Do: Important & Urgent
- Quadrant 2 – Schedule: Important but not Urgent
- Quadrant 3 – Delegate: Not Important but Urgent
- Quadrant 4 – Eliminate: Not Important nor Urgent
Once you list all day-to-day tasks, it’s easy to decide which task fits into which category. With some practice of prioritizing tasks, you will be able to avoid procrastination and manage things more efficiently. Below we will go into those quadrants in more detail.
Eisenhower Matrix – Why It Is So Useful
In a study1 published by the Journal of Consumer Research, the researchers examined how people decide between urgent and important tasks. Across five separate experiments, they observed that our attention is drawn more toward time-sensitive tasks over the ones that are important (and offer better rewards) but are less urgent.
It means that between urgent and important, urgent takes priority because there's a tight deadline involved. On the other hand, more important tasks take the sidelines as you don't have much energy and creativity to complete them. The Eisenhower Matrix provides a comprehensive way of efficient time management.
Urgent Vs. Important – The Ultimate Dilemma
The biggest dilemma in time management is urgent vs. important. The urgent is never important and important is rarely urgent. Urgent tasks require immediate attention and important tasks are vital for your long-term goals.
It’s often difficult to classify important and urgent tasks. Everything seems important and urgent at the same time, but to be successful short and long term, we need to tell them apart. By telling them apart we can prioritize, eliminate, and optimize tasks.
The Eisenhower Matrix provides a clear and precise framework for making decisions. And, the key to the urgent vs. important dilemma is elimination before optimization.
It’s human nature to solve problems and find a way around difficult situations. But very often, we spend our time and effort fighting pointless battles. Before solving a problem, first, you need to decide if you should be the one working on the problem or whether it can be delegated or eliminated altogether.
When it comes to organization, decluttering is often the first and most important step. Only by taking out the extra can you organize effectively. In computer programming, for example, there’s a famous saying by Kevlin Henney:
There is no code faster than no code. – Kevlin Henney
It means that the fastest way to get something done is to eliminate unnecessary tasks. In the urgent vs. important dilemma, the most important and difficult part is to eliminate. Everything seems important, but you can’t do everything (also see the 80/20 rule).
Even if you manage to cross everything off your list single-handedly, you’re going to be exhausted at the end of the day, which will take a toll on your creativity. Tim Ferris – the author of 4-hour WorkWeek (see on Amazon) – defines it as:
Being busy is a form of laziness – lazy thinking and indiscriminate action. Being busy is most often used as a guise for avoiding the few critically important but uncomfortable actions. – Tim Ferris
However much we try, the best path to optimization often leads through elimination. We frequently use productivity, optimization, and time management as an excuse to avoid the difficult question of: “Should I be doing that?”.
In contrast, it seems easier to spend a few hours being busy and telling yourself to “work a little harder.” The Eisenhower Matrix considers this aspect of human psychology and addresses it by eliminating tasks instead of letting them ruin your day.
Eisenhower Matrix – The Four Quadrants
Quadrant 1: Important AND Urgent – Do
The first quadrant called the Do or Do First quadrant includes tasks that are time-critical (must be done by today or tomorrow) and important for your life and career. For example, doing your taxes or meeting a deadline that could be essential to secure a business deal. The concept of Deep Work provides effective techniques to deal with Q1 tasks.
It's easy to categorize everything as important and urgent, from doing grocery shopping to your taxes. However, try being selective with what you put into the first quadrant. Having too many things to do immediately can lead to stress and increased procrastination. Putting out fires all day means you’re out of energy and passion for doing the tasks that matter.
Quadrant 2: Important but NOT Urgent – Schedule
The second quadrant, namely the schedule quadrant lists tasks that are important but less urgent. There's usually no tight deadline involved in the Q1 and you can be flexible.
For example, an online class that you want to take or routine car maintenance. These tasks usually go into the calendar and are set for a reasonable date. Once they’re scheduled, you’re neither stressing about starting soon nor delaying the tasks indefinitely.
The second quadrant of the Eisenhower Matrix offers the opportunity for professional and personal growth. Completing tasks in this quadrant means you’re proactive and improving your productivity. However, it’s important to complete those scheduled tasks on time without delaying them further.
Having a Q2 should mean fewer Q1s. However, if you keep delaying that routine car checkup, you’ll probably have to pay up later for accumulated needs for repairs. If you are considering taking a class to manage Q2 tasks better, here's a list of productivity courses.
Quadrant 3: NOT Important BUT Urgent – Delegate
Delegate occupies the third quadrant of the Eisenhower Matrix. It refers to tasks that are urgent, but not important. In this quadrant lives the effect of urgency, and the drive to complete tasks because of deadlines even if the tasks aren’t exactly meaningful.
Focusing on mere urgent tasks or someone else’s priorities means stealing attention away from tasks that are important for your own success.
Q3 tasks usually revolve around other people’s expectations of you. For example, an unnecessary interruption from a coworker, long and nonproductive meetings, and frequently checking the phone or your emails.
Since the tasks in Q3 are not directly contributing to your long-term plans, it’s smart to delegate. There are two ways to handle these urgent and unimportant tasks:
- Delegate: instead of going all the way to the grocery store, get the groceries delivered to your home instead. Let someone else take notes during the meetings. Hire a digital assistant to schedule regular appointments such as the dentists.
- Set Boundaries: Turn off notifications on your mobile phone and computer while working. Be clear and precise about timelines. Complete the tasks such as doing laundry for the end of the day when you’re low on energy.
Delegating Q3 tasks is ideal and recommended. However, if you can’t do that, try setting boundaries to limit time spent on them. Chunking tasks is a helpful technique here.
Quadrant 4: NOT Important NOT Urgent – Eliminate
The last quadrant involves activities that are wasting your time and should be avoided. Not only do they not contribute to your progress in reaching goals, but they also end up taking more time than you initially intended. The worst part about the Q4 tasks is that they ultimately leave you feeling unfulfilled and exhausted.
A few examples of Q4 activities are binge-watching for hours, scrolling through social media, excessive and unnecessary online shopping or browsing, etc. Activities in the fourth quadrant aren’t inherently toxic but become toxic to your health and productivity when you spend an unhealthy amount of time on them.
Leisure activities are an excellent way to freshen up your mind on weekends or after a long day at work. Even Eisenhower was a well-known bridge and golf player. The key is to use these activities to balance out the stress of a workday.
The notion was supported by a study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology. The study elucidates how off-duty experiences (during the evening) of the employees relate to their proactive behavior the next day at work. It found that:
- Employees who invested time in personal development (such as volunteering) were extra motivated the following morning.
- Employees who spent time relaxing by reading, learning, yoga, music, or meditation (courses) were calmer on the next workday. See best personal development courses.
- Employees engaging in leisure activities (news reading, TV, gaming) to ignore or avoid problems showed increased positivity the following day. Although, the positivity didn’t last long and their motivation and moods worsened over the time course of the week.
Therefore, in the long term, excessive Q4 activities can drain your creativity and energy instead of refueling your passion.
Eisenhower Matrix – 6 Time Management Tips
1. Make the To-do List
Listing tasks in a to-do list free and distress your mind. You can use tools such as Trello or ToDoist to organize your everyday tasks and the calendar. However, before putting anything on the to-do list or schedule, always question whether it’s worth prioritizing.
2. Put Only Eight Tasks Per Quadrant
It’s easy to categorize everything into four categories, but people often end up overfilling the various quadrants. To be precise with the Eisenhower Matrix, limit yourself to only eight tasks per quadrant. Remember that the goal is to finish tasks, not just list them. Before adding a new task, complete the most important one to make room.
3. Do Not Separate Personal and Professional
You don’t hear it very often, but when it comes to the Eisenhower Matrix, do not separate personal and professional. Both aspects of your life are equally important and play a vital role in shaping your future. By keeping the same list for personal and professional, you will consider both and remind yourself to spend time with your family.
4. Don’t Be Afraid to Say No!
Don’t let others distract you from the task at hand. Define your priorities, set boundaries, and don’t be afraid of saying no. You owe it to yourself to reach your goals without getting sidetracked.
5. Eliminate before Optimize
Humans are bound to get attached – to people, things, places, and ideas. But, there’s a time when you need to declutter and eliminate what’s taking a toll on your productivity.
6. Ditch Procrastination
Procrastination is the worst enemy of productivity. Make sure that when you assign yourself a task, it’s always completed on time. Manage your to-dos practically without overwhelming yourself. Set up an Eisenhower Matrix.
7. Printable Eisenhower Matrix – PDF Planner
Here is a free printable Eisenhower Matrix PDF planner you can use to start organizing your tasks and projects in one of the four quadrants. Open and download PDF here.
Eisenhower Matrix – Summary, Conclusion
Summarizing our guide and tutorial on how to use the Eisenhower Matrix. The Eisenhower Matrix is a tool, and like any other tool, its usability depends and differs with the user. What works for you may not work for someone else.
The important thing is to see the task as it is. For one person, browsing social media may be considered a leisure activity, but if you work in digital marketing, it's your day-to-day job.
To manage your time effectively in order to achieve your long-term goals, use the Eisenhower Matrix practically and take some time to understand and figure out how it works best for you.
Eisenhower Matrix – Pros and Cons
First, there aren't any real disadvantages of the Eisenhower Matrix. When you apply the principles and organize your tasks with the Important-Urgent matrix, you will gain a real benefit. However, sticking to such a workstyle requires discipline, regular reviewing of your prioritizing, and feedback rounds. This might be a challenge to some.
Eisenhower Matrix Template
Download as PDF here, or use the image template below as an example to create your own within Excel or Numbers. You can easily create such an Eisenhower Template template in ToDoist or Trello with some modifications, think of swimlanes here.
If you liked this guide on how to use the Eisenhower Matrix, please spread the word and help others to become more productive.