You've got a busy day ahead of you. You know you need to pull together a client's campaign performance report. You want to start identifying your team's goals for the next year. You're eager to finalize your slide deck for a presentation next week.
The next thing you know, it's 4pm and you haven't touched a single thing you wanted to work on.
Instead, you got sucked into answering quick emails, addressing last-minute requests and generally stomping out any other red-alert-three-alarm-need-this-now fires that cropped up.
And now? You feel discouraged. And frustrated. And probably pretty stressed — because your best-laid plans for a productive and meaningful workday seemingly went up in smoke right in front of your eyes.
The good news is that there's a better way to approach your to-dos. The Eisenhower Matrix can help you focus on the work that actually matters.
What is the Eisenhower Matrix?
The Eisenhower Matrix is a visual tool for identifying your priorities. It's a square split into four even quadrants, which you use to categorize your work based on both its urgency and importance. Here's a quick look at what an empty matrix looks like:
It's a deceptively simple box that can give you a ton of clarity about what you should focus on.
Think it has something to do with President Dwight Eisenhower? You aren't wrong. In one of his speeches, he shared a quote from the president of Northwestern University at the time, Dr. J. Roscoe Miller:
"I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent."
This concept became known as Eisenhower's Urgent/Important Principle – despite the fact that the words weren't originally his own. Author and businessman, Stephen Covey, then expanded on the Eisenhower Principle in his 1989 book "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People" and created the matrix we know today.
You might also hear the Eisenhower Matrix called the Eisenhower Box, a Priority Matrix or a Time Management Matrix. They're different names that all represent the same thing.
Why use an Eisenhower Matrix?
Categorizing your tasks into the different squares is an extra step. Why bother taking the time – especially if you already feel like you have too much to do? Using an Eisenhower Matrix is a good idea for several reasons:
- Reduce overwhelm: You've probably been in a situation before where you had so much to do you didn't have any idea where to even get started. While this matrix won't do any of the actual work for you (we wish), it gives you a clear action plan for tackling your tasks strategically. Sometimes all you need is a starting point.
- Avoid the urgency trap: Our brains are quite literally hardwired to focus on the stuff that's time-pressing, even if it's not the most critical or meaningful work that's on our list. It's a psychological bias called the Mere Urgency Effect. The Eisenhower Matrix helps you get a more holistic view of what's on your plate, rather than defaulting to the stuff with the tightest deadline.
- Learn how to delegate: While the matrix identifies the tasks that are super significant, it also highlights the stuff that's not so serious. Those are things that you could easily pass on to someone else (without stressing about the complexity of the task). And doing so might help you lighten your load long-term.
See? Pretty impressive feats for a seemingly simple box.
Understanding urgent vs. important tasks
Before you draw out your own matrix and start categorizing your own tasks, you need to have a firm grasp on the difference between these two terms: urgent and important.
- Urgent tasks: Need to be accomplished because they have a tight, looming deadline.
- Important tasks: Need to be accomplished because they carry a lot of weight and significance.
That seems easy enough on the surface, but the lines can quickly become blurry in the context of your workday. The stuff that's urgent feels inherently important, because you're facing external pressure to get it done. The work itself might not be crucial – but the deadline is.
The urgency of any given task is pretty straightforward to determine, provided you know the deadline or timeline. The importance is murkier, particularly since it can be subjective.
If you're stuck, here's a quick question to ask yourself about the task: What will happen if this doesn't get done at all?
Determining worst-case scenarios and the potential fallout can help you get a better understanding of just how much weight a particular task carries.
Categorizing your tasks: The four quadrants of the Eisenhower Matrix
You're ready to sift through your tasks and sort them out based on their urgency and importance. Let's take a closer look at each of the four categories – along with a few Eisenhower Matrix examples.
Important and urgent
Consider this the premium or VIP category of your matrix. It's where you'll put the tasks that are meaningful but also have a rapidly-approaching deadline
What to do with these tasks: Put these in the top spot on your to-do list for today. They're your highest priorities, no doubt about it.
Important and not urgent
This space is reserved for your work that's meaningful and significant, but doesn't necessarily have a deadline that's breathing down your neck.
What to do with these tasks: Block out some space on your calendar and schedule time to work on these tasks soon. You don't want them to stay on the backburner until they become urgent.
Urgent and not important
Here's where you'll put any of your tasks that have some immediacy attached to them – for example, maybe someone else is waiting on you to complete it. But even so, the task itself isn't super imperative. You just need to meet the deadline and get it off your plate.
What to do with these tasks: Delegate or automate them. If that's not an option, put them after the items that are both urgent and important on your to-do list.
Not important and not urgent
Here it is – the metaphorical landfill of your to-do list. We all have the tendency to carry clutter along with us, passing it from list to list without ever actually checking it off. The Eisenhower Matrix will force you to parse those out. After all, they're only causing you stress.
What to do with these tasks: Remove them from your to-do list. Yep, just toss 'em out. They obviously don't matter (or you would've gotten them done by now).
How to use (and love) the Eisenhower Matrix at work
The above Eisenhower Matrix examples show that this tool is pretty intuitive to use. But, if you still feel a little stuck, here's a step-by-step guide to get started.
Step #1: Create a long list of your tasks
Before you can start categorizing your tasks, you need to know everything that's currently on your plate. Yep, even those little to-do's and reminders that have been on your list for days or weeks (or months – we'll never tell).
Step #2: Sketch out your matrix
Next up, it's time to get your matrix ready to go. Sketch it on a notepad or a whiteboard or even use a digital version. There's no rule here. Find what works for you.
Step #3: Categorize your tasks
Armed with that big ol' laundry list of all of your to-dos and a blank matrix, you're ready to separate your tasks into their categories. If you're struggling to determine the importance of a certain to-do, remember to ask yourself about the potential consequences of not getting it done at all. That will help you better understand just how much significance is attached to it.
Step #4: Use your matrix as your guide
The act of creating your matrix and categorizing your tasks on its own doesn't do anything. That's a lot like establishing a budget but continuing to spend money with reckless abandon. You need to actually use your matrix and act in accordance with the priorities you identified.
We spelled out your action steps with each quadrant above, but here's a quick reference guide for you:
- Important and urgent: Do these first.
- Important and not urgent: Schedule in time for these in the coming days or weeks.
- Urgent and not important: Delegate or automate these. If you can't delegate or automate, do these right after your important and urgent tasks.
- Not urgent and not important: Remove these from your to-do list (and brain) entirely.
Get to work on what matters
We're all familiar with the disheartening feeling of getting all the way to the end of your workday only to realize you didn't make any progress on your most essential and important work.
And yet, it's still so easy to spend all of your hours and energy on the quick wins and the last-minute requests that spring up – like we're playing a frantic and exhausting game of workday Whack-a-Mole.
There's a better way. An Eisenhower Matrix can help you cut through the noise and chaos of your traditional to-do list and tackle the stuff that matters most.