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Productivity

The Eisenhower matrix: How to decide on what’s important and urgent (without a to-do list)

Dwight Eisenhower was the 34th President of the United States between the years, 1953 to 1961.

Before this, Eisenhower was a five-star general in the United States Army and served as supreme commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II—including the successful invasion of France and Germany from the Western Front.

Eisenhower also found time for his personal hobbies including reading, poker, oil painting, golf and also served as the President of Columbia University.

In his lifetime, Eisenhower accomplished a lot and sustained high productivity for many years until his death.

Today, his methods of productivity have been studied extensively and used successfully by top performing entrepreneurs, professionals, athletes, artists and so on.

His best-known technique, the Eisenhower Matrix, is a simple, powerful tool that will help you to better prioritize your tasks—distinguish between what is important and urgent—and boost your productivity today.

Here’s how it works.

The Eisenhower Matrix

“The most urgent decisions are rarely the most important ones.”

—Dwight Eisenhower

First popularized in the book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (audiobook), The Eisenhower Matrix, also known as Urgent-Important Matrix, consists of four quadrants that help you to decide on and prioritize tasks by urgency and importance.

The four quadrants of the Eisenhower Matrix are as follows:

Urgent and important (tasks to do immediately).
Important, but not urgent (tasks to schedule later).
Urgent, but not important (tasks to delegate to someone else).
Neither urgent nor important (tasks to eliminate).
Here’s what the Eisenhower Matrix looks like.

Each quadrant of the Eisenhower matrix can be broken down as follows (in order from top left, top right, bottom left and bottom right):

Quadrant 1: Important but not urgent

Tasks in this quadrant don’t have a deadline round the corner, but they are important for achieving your goals.

Examples include: exercising, journaling, studying, family time.

Ideally, we should spend majority of our time on tasks in this box,

Quadrant 2: Urgent and important

Tasks in this box of the Eisenhower matrix include deadlines, crises and problems that require your immediate attention and are also important for achieving your goals.

Examples include: responding to urgent emails, work deadlines and so on.

Tasks in this box should be proactively eliminated in advance, when they were previously in the quadrant 1 box.

Quadrant 3: Not important and not urgent

Tasks in this box of the Eisenhower matrix are typically time-wasting activities that don’t help you to achieve your long-term goals.

Examples include: Mindlessly browsing through social media, surfing the web, playing video games and watching TV.

If we’re being honest, we often spend the majority of our time on activities in this box. I’ve personally struggled to stay focused and avoid the distractions of YouTube videos on the web.

What has worked for me isn’t necessarily eliminating activities in this box, but instead minimizing and using them as a reward for my productive hours during the day.

Quadrant 4: Urgent but not important

Activities in this box of the Eisenhower matrix are generally urgent interruptions that don’t help us to achieve our goals.

Examples include: responding to urgent emails, phone calls or messages from friends, family or work colleagues.

The danger with activities in this box, is that they can often deceptively appear to be quadrant 2 activities.

They also give us a sense of achievement and satisfaction from crossing them off our to-do list, when in reality we haven’t made much progress.

Now that we’ve reviewed the four quadrants of the Eisenhower matrix, here’s how you can make the most of the Eisenhower matrix.

The difference between urgent and important

The key to making the most out of the Eisenhower Matrix work is distinguishing between what is urgent and what is important.

Urgent tasks are typically time sensitive and require our immediate attention. They force you to be reactive, anxious and stressed.

Conversely, important tasks put you in a proactive and strategic mode. They contribute to your long-term goals and give you more time to make better decisions—to avoid stupid decisions.

The more time you spend on activities that are important but not urgent, the more proactive and productive you will be.

The best ways I’ve found to distinguish between urgent and important tasks is to:

Define and write down what is important i.e. life goals, core values and
Practice self awareness to identify urges or impulses to react to a given task. These tasks are typically urgent.
Delegation and Optimisation

“We accomplish all that we do through delegation, either to time or to other people”

– Stephen Covey

What happens when you don’t have enough time for an activity or can’t decide how to fit them all inside the Eisenhower matrix?

Is there a way to maximize our productivity using the Eisenhower matrix, with the least time and effort spent?

The answer to these lies within the use of optimization and delegation.

Delegation involves giving away the completion of a task to something or someone else i.e. booking a driver instead of walking, a colleague writing a report or email on your behalf etc.

Optimization involves the elimination of anything that is not absolutely necessary for the completion of a goal i.e. cutting out ‘fillers’ or ‘fluff’ from a piece of writing, cutting out clients or customers that don’t add value etc.

Here’s how it works, illustrated within this useful 2-step question checklist:

Q1 (the optimisation question): Does this task need to be done?

If yes, go to Q2.

If no – Eliminate the task entirely.

Q2 (the delegation question)- Can this task be delegated to someone else to do it for me?

If yes, delegate.

If no, assess if the task fits into your life goals and treat accordingly.

For example, I used to spend hours over the weekend cleaning my house until running through this checklist and finally delegating important cleaning to a professional cleaner. Although this costs money, it has saved me a lot of time and energy that would’ve been spent cleaning my house.

The what, not the how of productivity

The most important part of improving the productivity in our lives isn’t the how, it’s the what i.e What do I actually need to be doing right now? What do I need to delegate and what do I need to eliminate?

The Eisenhower matrix is a powerful tool that keeps you accountable to working on what is truly important to you. It forces you to think about what is urgent and important, and helps you to stay in a proactive mode of thinking.

By driving a focus on the right what’s for you, the Eisenhower matrix could help you to eliminate time-wasting activities and improve your productivity for a lifetime.

 

Mayo Oshin writes at MayoOshin.com, where he shares practical self-improvement ideas and proven science for better health, productivity and creativity. To get practical ideas on how to stop procrastinating and build healthy habits, you can join his free weekly newsletter here.

A version of this article originally appeared at mayooshin.com as “The Eisenhower matrix: How to Decide on What’s Important and Urgent (Without a To-Do List).

Footnotes

1. Ideas on the Eisenhower matrix are from Stephen Covey’s book, The 7 habits of highly effective people.

2.The format of this Eisenhower matrix is an adaption of the original. Within the original Eisenhower matrix, the axis moves in the opposite direction i.e. quadrant 1 is urgent and important, and quadrant 4 is not important, not urgent. Regardless, the general concept is still intact.

 

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