05 Aug 2016
Prioritise your work using the Eisenhower matrix
A few years ago I read about a tool for evaluating and prioritising work. It was so useful the first time I tried it that I still use it to this day. In particular, when I’m feeling overwhelmed this method helps me to visualise everything I have going on, and figure out where I can change my workload or schedule so I’m not so stressed.
The tool I’m talking about is called the Eisenhower matrix. Though nobody seems able to prove that Dwight D. Eisenhower ever used something like this, the matrix’s focus on the difference between urgent tasks and important tasks connects it to this quote, often attributed to Eisenhower:
What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.
I wasn’t able to prove that he said that, let alone had any connection to the Eisenhower matrix itself, but it doesn’t really matter. The tool is useful regardless of who created it, and the quote is a good one to keep in mind when evaluating your workload.
Working with the matrix
The matrix itself is very simple. It’s a square, broken into four more squares, like a window. The simplicity of this tool means you don’t need any equipment or specially printed worksheets to use it—you can simply draw four boxes on a sheet of paper or a whiteboard. (Though if you do prefer worksheets, here’s a printable PDF version from The Art of Manliness)
Image credit: le monsieur via Josh Medeski
As you can see in the example above, the matrix’s four boxes have different labels:
- Quadrant 1: urgent and important
- Quadrant 2: important but not urgent
- Quadrant 3: urgent but not important
- Quadrant 4: not urgent or important
To use the matrix, simply write your tasks or projects into the boxes where they belong.
Although it sounds simple, understanding what’s truly important and what’s not can take some effort.
Urgent vs. important
The hardest thing about plotting your tasks onto the Eisenhower matrix is deciding which box they belong in. We tend to think everything that’s urgent is important, and everything that’s important to someone else must be important to us too.
Truly important tasks are the ones that will move the needle—however you define that. Learning new skills to advance your career, working on projects that challenge you to improve, and spending time to strengthen relationships with family and friends are all important. Long-term planning for your business, exercising, and hobbies that help you relax and recharge are all important.
Most of the emails we respond to are not important. Fruitless complaining is not important. Watching TV, eating junk food, sorting through junk mail, and mindless shopping aren’t important. That doesn’t mean we should never do those things—just that they’re not important in the grand scheme of things, and won’t make a positive difference to our lives overall.
When something is urgent, it demands our attention. The phone ringing, a new email notification, or a reminder of a deadline are all urgent. They force us to pay attention. This can make them seem important, but they’re not necessarily.
On the other hand, just because a task is important doesn’t mean it will demand your attention. We have to make important tasks our priority if we want them to get done.
Knowing how a task fits into the matrix can help us understand how to deal with it. If it’s in quadrant one, it’s both urgent and important, so we should do it right away. If it’s in quadrant two, it’s not urgent, so it doesn’t need immediate attention, but it is important, so we should plan a time to work on it.
Quadrant three tasks, which are urgent but not important can be dealt with in various ways. You might be able to delegate them to someone else, or even cancel them completely, if you decide they don’t really need to be done. If you do need to do them yourself, you’ll want to get them out of the way quickly, since they’re urgent, but not spend too much time on them, since they’re not important.
Quadrant four is where you want to spend the least of your time. This is essentially a quadrant full of time-wasters. It’s fine to spend time here, watching TV, laying around, or browsing the internet. Sometimes it’s a relief to do something that’s neither urgent nor important. But you want to avoid getting sucked into long stretches here, and be mindful of when you are in quadrant four.
Using the matrix to plan your day
For those days when everything’s getting on top of you, the Eisenhower matrix can help you prioritise, plan, and delegate so the important and urgent tasks get done.
The quickest way to put the matrix to work is to simply ask yourself about each task you face, is this truly important? Is it just urgent? Or is it neither of those?
A quick check with yourself for each task will give you an idea of how you’re spending your time. Ideally you want to aim to spend most of your time in quadrant two, while minimising the time you have to spend in quadrant three, and working on important tasks before they end up in quadrant one. Quadrant four is the chill out zone, so save that for the end of your workday (or during breaks) when you can enjoy it guilt-free.
Planning long-term projects
When you’re looking at a single long-term project, the matrix can help you figure out which tasks will move the project forward, which ones need to be dealt with first, and which ones are only wasting your time.
For multiple projects, the matrix can be especially useful. If you have work projects, side projects, hobbies and other commitments, and you’re having trouble balancing it all, try plotting everything on the matrix. Seeing everything laid out visually can be incredibly helpful when your workload feels overwhelming and your tasks are all a jumble in your head.
The great thing about these simple squares is they force you to ask hard questions. They make you reconsider things you’ve agreed to do, and how you’re spending your time. And they make it very clear when you’re being inefficient in what you work on.
The matrix makes everything clear, and helps you see where your energy is going. That’s why I pull it out every time my workload starts to feel unmanageable, or when I feel like I’m neglecting the things I want to do for all the things I think I have to do.