The Eisenhower Matrix is a highly effective framework to prioritize tasks and workload. It’s the brainchild of Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th President of the United States and a former five-star General of the Army.
Eisenhower was tremendously productive and known for his ability to make decisions with conviction. In this article, we’ll discuss his powerful task management and prioritization technique that many people use today to increase productivity.
Why should we prioritize tasks?
Our most important tasks enable us to make progress towards achieving our long-term goals. Whereas our less important tasks are often easier, require less thought, and they’re unlikely to have as big of an impact.
If we don’t prioritize our workload well, then we tend to lean towards completing low-value tasks. However, if we prioritize tasks effectively, we’re able to identify our most important (high-value) work more clearly.
Eisenhower Matrix – find what’s important and urgent
Dwight Eisenhower created a logical separation between our important and urgent tasks, and this is the foundation of the Eisenhower Matrix.
What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.Dwight D. Eisenhower
The Eisenhower Matrix uses four quadrants for ranking task priority. Each quadrant represents the level of importance and urgency:
- Important and urgent – top priority tasks requiring immediate action
- Important but not urgent – tasks scheduled for later, requiring more focus
- Not important but urgent– tasks delegated to other people, not requiring our skills
- Not important and not urgent – irrelevant tasks removed, not adding any value
Diagrammatically, the prioritization framework looks like the following:
Let’s understand more about what these priority boxes mean, and more importantly, how we can use them.
The “Do” quadrant: important and urgent tasks
The “Do” box represents our highest priority items since they’re important and urgent.
These are tasks that commonly need doing as soon as possible. They have clear deadlines and major consequences for not taking action quickly.
Tasks prioritized in the “Do” quadrant may include:
- Submit personal tax documents (the day before the deadline)
- Sign the proposal for a major new vendor
- Get back to the angry client who’s threatening to cancel our service
- Send our manager the monthly performance for her board meeting
- Analyze and remediate newly raised risks for product launch
The “Schedule” quadrant: important but not urgent tasks
The “Schedule” box is where our long-term or strategic tasks go. They don’t require doing immediately (i.e. they’re not urgent), but they’re important and will get us closer to achieving our broader objectives.
Tasks we assign here are usually easier to procrastinate on because they require more focus and time to complete. It’s where our deep work goes. Furthermore, we know we don’t need to finish them now, but if we don’t make progress on them through careful planning, then they could become important and urgent.
Tasks that go into the “Schedule” quadrant could be the following:
- Design the 3-year product strategy roadmap
- Prepare the agenda and content for the next quarterly business review
- Create the new process for onboarding full-time staff members
- Complete final training module for the cloud technology certification
- Research target market to refine advertising strategy
The “Delegate” quadrant: not important but urgent tasks
In the “Delegate” box, we aim to put tasks we can move on or assign to someone else. It’s where our “busy” work goes and it needs doing quickly (because it’s urgent).
Although, these tasks interrupt our progress in the more meaningful work (in “Do” and “Schedule” quadrants), and arguably they’re a burden to us. They don’t necessarily require our specialist skills, hence why we seek to take advantage of any opportunity to assign them elsewhere. We look to delegate them to someone in our team, another team, or even externally.
Depending on our priorities and responsibilities, examples of tasks that slot into the “Delegate” quadrant might include:
- Update the weekly report
- Enter the revenue and cost data manually into the spreadsheet file
- Send out the meeting minutes from the weekly team call
- Check the staffing report for any missing new hires and leavers
- Order the next batch of IT equipment from the vendor
The “Eliminate” quadrant: not important and not urgent tasks
When we prioritize tasks with the Eisenhower Matrix, the “Eliminate” box is where we put nothing at all. We should not waste any time on these tasks, other than making a quick decision to avoid them and get back to our “real” work.
Tasks here are distraction-friendly, and they simply interrupt us from doing valuable work that has a positive impact.
The following tasks could conceptually go into the “Eliminate” quadrant:
- Reply to the email with a lengthy response that doesn’t need a response at all
- Browse social media for 30 minutes while focusing on important work
- Host an irrelevant meeting with people to waste everyone’s time
- Attend a meeting I don’t need to attend and that I add no value for
- Gossip with co-workers to ensure we’re up-to-date on the latest workplace politics
Use the Eisenhower Matrix with a step-by-step approach
To adopt this proven prioritization framework, we need to perform several steps (one at a time). Thereafter, it’s a case of maintaining our new priorities by balancing the current tasks and assigning the new ones.
Centralize all of our tasks into one location
To keep things simple, our approach to prioritize tasks begins by listing all of our current workload in a centralized location. A simple way to start with this exercise is to use a software tool and create a to-do list. The software tool is essentially our place for storing all of our tasks.
A general best practice to follow when performing this exercise is to avoid entering tasks that take us less than 2 minutes to complete. Otherwise, it’s a waste of time since we can complete those tasks faster than the time it takes us to enter and categorize them into our software tool.
Prioritize tasks one by one according to the Eisenhower Matrix
Once we have our list of actionable tasks entered in the chosen software tool, then we can evaluate them individually against the urgent and important principles. Ultimately, we’ll assign each task to one of the four quadrants.
When we come across any competing priorities, then we can dig deeper and further prioritize tasks. For example, where we have multiple important and urgent tasks, we can compare them with key factors such as:
- Task due dates
- Value of doing the tasks
- Consequences of not doing the tasks
- Estimated time to complete the tasks
- Asking people who are stakeholders of the tasks for their opinions (i.e. seek more clarity and align on expectations)
- Ability to negotiate with other people who are stakeholders of the tasks, on all of the factors above
Be flexible by understanding and accepting that task priorities change often
It’s a matter of fact that our priorities will change frequently. Sometimes they’ll change daily and possibly throughout the working day. As daunting as that sounds, it’s commonplace when managing tasks and we must accept it.
It’s not all that bad though, because we have an effective software tool acting as our to-do list, coupled with our newfound ability to leverage the Eisenhower Matrix and quickly prioritize tasks.
Shuffling tasks into different urgent/important boxes and further evaluating priorities will almost become second nature as our familiarity with the process grows.
Create a habit by using the Eisenhower Matrix every day
The final piece of the puzzle is to simply make a habit of it. The more practice we get in prioritizing tasks with the Eisenhower Matrix, the faster and more competent we’ll become.
The first time assigning our tasks against the urgent and important principles is the hardest because we’re learning a new process while performing it. Needless to say, we likely have a lot of tasks (in our current list) to prioritize too.
Nevertheless, when we reach the point of task prioritization being a “maintenance” activity, where we prioritize new/incoming tasks and balance our existing tasks, we’ll be doing it on the go and spending far less time on it.
Instead, we’ll spend our time on what matters most: working towards achieving maximum productivity by focusing on our most important work.