The Eisenhower Matrix, also referred to as Urgent-Important Matrix, helps you decide on and prioritize tasks by urgency and importance, sorting out less urgent and important tasks which you should either delegate or not do at all.
Where does the name come from?
Dwight D. Eisenhower was the 34th President of the United States from 1953 until 1961. Before becoming President, he served as a general in the United States Army and as the Allied Forces Supreme Commander during World War II. He also later became NATO’s first supreme commander.
Dwight had to make tough decisions continuously about which of the many tasks he should focus on each day. This finally led him to invent the world-famous Eisenhower principle, which today helps us prioritize by urgency and importance.
What Are “Urgent” and “Important” Activities?
In a 1954 speech to the Second Assembly of the World Council of Churches, former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was quoting Dr J. Roscoe Miller, president of Northwestern University, said: “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.
He recognized that great time management means being effective as well as efficient. In other words, we must spend our time on things that are important and not just the ones that are urgent. To do this, and to minimize the stress of having too many tight deadlines, we need to understand this distinction:
- Important activities have an outcome that leads to us achieving our goals, whether these are professional or personal.
- Urgent activities demand immediate attention, and are usually associated with achieving someone else’s goals. They are often the ones we concentrate on and they demand attention because the consequences of not dealing with them are immediate.
When we know which activities are important and which are urgent, we can overcome the natural tendency to focus on unimportant urgent activities, so that we can clear enough time to do what’s essential for our success. This is the way we move from “firefighting” into a position where we can grow our businesses and our careers.
Coming towards the matrix, the matrix basically categorizes your tasks into 4 quadrants according to what you need to do at a particular time during your day.
These 4 quadrants are:
The first quadrant of the Eisenhower Matrix, Do, consists of your most important tasks. The activities which need to be done urgently. The tasks with a deadline approaching or the ones that cannot be delayed generally fall in this category.
For putting tasks in this category, you need to thoroughly analyze your priorities first and then decide if it fits with the do it now criteria. If the task needs to be done within a day, or no longer than the next day, it is an urgent task. Do.it.now!
Another way to put this in context is to keep in mind the famous ‘eat the frog first principle’ of Mark Twain, connotating that you should do your most urgent tasks for the day the first thing in the morning.
Let’s take a concrete work example here to make things easy for you. At the end of each week, you’re delegated with the responsibility of providing a comprehensive report to your manager. Now, your weekends on Friday. It’s Thursday morning already and you haven’t prepared the report. Does this classify as an urgent task? Absolutely!
The 2nd quadrant of the Eisenhower Matrix is Decide. It constitutes of the tasks which are important, but not necessarily urgent. This could include an array of responsibilities ranging from professional emails, follow-ups, to more personal appointments and commitments.
Tasks in this quadrant need to be scheduled for some other time. Generally, these tasks are in line with your long-term goals and contribute to your growth. A common everyday example could be to exercise. You know it’s crucial to good health, but you cannot dedicate time to it. So, you need to decide the time when you’re ready to hit it.
Schedule tasks in a way that they do not transfer to the ‘urgent’ category. Make sure you have enough time to execute them while they still fit in this division.
3rd quadrant of the Eisenhower Matrix is Delegate. This category refers to the tasks which are not important, but urgent. Although it sounds counter-intuitive because naturally, your first instinct would be that aren’t tasks which are urgent, important too? Not necessarily!
These activities generally give you the deception of being important, while in reality, they don’t really contribute much towards your productivity. You need to decide whether you need to reschedule it or if someone else can do it for you.
Some of the examples can include scheduling interviews, replying to certain emails, or team meetings that can be conducted by someone else, while you’re busy executing your quadrant 1 activities.
The last category of the Eisenhower Matrix is Eliminate. These consists of tasks that are essentially your productivity killers. They do not contribute at all towards your goals. Identify these activities and eliminate them to give your productivity a boost.
Common examples of these activities include mindless surfing on social media, constantly checking your phone for calls or messages, playing video games, or general activities that you use to procrastinate.
How to use the Eisenhower Matrix for Time Management
If by now you’re wondering your life will magically become organized by using this matrix, it’s not that easy! But by putting in a little bit of effort, you can get yourself on track.
First things first, you need to classify your urgent and important activities. For doing so, you need to set your priorities right and define urgency levels.
Your urgent tasks are usually the ones which have a time constraint attached to them. These activities have a ‘do it now’ written all over them and require your utmost attention.
On the other hand, your important tasks are generally long term and rather goal-oriented. Generally, they don’t give you immediate results and are more focused on making better long-term decisions.
After you’re done classifying your urgent and important tasks, the next few things you need to do to fully utilize the potential of Eisenhower matrix for time management are:
1. Give Color Codes to Quadrants
Assign color codes to your quadrants to quickly help you understand the gravity of the situation. By allocating colors, you can get a quick glance at what needs to be done next. These color codes also help you to prioritize your tasks to make informed decisions.
For example; the do quadrant can be colored red to indicate the urgency of tasks.
2. Categorize Your Professional and Personal To-dos
To avoid over-lapping commitments, make separate matrices for your professional and personal tasks. This will steer you clear for what lies ahead and will greatly influence how you manage your time. A trick here can be to dedicate distinct hours of the day for both kinds of commitments and see how that works for you.
3. Limit the Number of Items Per Quadrant
Adding too many items per quadrant will over-complicate things and the purpose of using the Eisenhower matrix for time management will be lost. To optimize it, limit the number of actions to 7 or 8. That way you won’t be overwhelmed with what you need to do.