The Eisenhower matrix – A popular prioritization framework
The Eisenhower Matrix is one of the most popular frameworks for prioritizing tasks. The matrix was invented by Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th President of the United States, serving from 1953 to 1961.
The Eisenhower matrix was then repackaged by Stephen Covey in one of the best time-management books of all time, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
In this blog post we’ll explain in detail what the Eisenhower matrix is, and even more importantly, whether it still makes sense to use it for prioritizing tasks all these decades later.
As you will see, the Eisenhower Matrix can be very helpful in setting priorities, as long as it has to be used in the right way.
The Eisenhower matrix explained
The Eisenhower matrix is quite simple to understand: based on two dimensions – urgency and importance – the user builds a matrix of four quadrants. These quadrants are:
- Do first: Urgent + Important
- Schedule: Not Urgent + Important
- Delegate: Urgent + Not Important
- Eliminate: Not Important + Not Urgent
Urgent tasks are the ones that you feel you must react to (like emails, phone calls, meetings, etc.) and tasks that are time‑sensitive, meaning you have strict deadlines.
Urgent tasks want your attention now, but that doesn’t mean they really deserve it. They usually contribute to short-term goals and time-sensitive matters, and these are tasks where you are expected to react quickly.
Important tasks, on the other hand, are the ones that contribute to your long-term goals and the things you value or really want to do in life.
These tasks are the ones that are part of your business, or life vision and mission, or tasks that are the most valuable at your job. These are tasks where you must be as proactive as possible.
Now let’s deep dive into each quadrant from the bottom up, that is-from the least important tasks to the most important ones.
Eliminate: Not Important + Not Urgent
The “eliminate” quadrant is the easiest to understand rationally, but sometimes the hardest to deal with emotionally. This quadrant contains all the tasks that are neither important nor urgent.
Some examples of such tasks are:
- Social media
- Entertainment (watching TV, browsing online…)
- Taking a survey that’s not really important
- Going to events we don’t really like
- Eating junk food
- Non-essential shopping
The main problem with these tasks is that you have to be ruthless when it comes to saying no to other people (and to yourself).
Sometimes when we try to be too nice or we don’t guard our calendar and to-do list well enough, we can quickly get swamped with tasks that don’t really contribute anything to our short-term or long-term goals.
If you have too many tasks in this quadrant, the first step is to learn how to say no to other people; but even before that to be really clear about what your personal and business goals are, where can you contribute the most value, and what the activities you usually waste the most time on are.
Delegate or minimize: Urgent + Not Important
“Delegate”, the second quadrant of the Eisenhower matrix, is probably the most important for advancing your career as it allows you to remove your focus from tasks that can be delegated and spend it on those which are harder to execute and more valuable.
The main secret to dealing with this quadrant correctly is about knowing how, when, and to whom to delegate. It’s about leveraging other people’s time.
You should delegate all those tasks that other people can do instead of you, assuming you have more valuable tasks on your to-do list.
To be as practical as possible, here are some examples of tasks you should delegate:
- If you are a freelancer and earn 70$ per hour, you can delegate all the tasks that you can outsource for a lower hourly rate.
- If you are a team lead, you can delegate all the tasks that someone else in your team can perform and focus yourself on more important tasks. That doesn’t mean you delegate the tasks you don’t like; you have to focus yourself on even harder tasks than the ones you delegate – leading, resolving conflicts, managing stakeholder relationships, etc.
This quadrant is not only about delegating; it’s also about outsourcing, optimizing, and automating tasks. Today there are many automation tools out there (such as IFTTT or Zapier), that can help you automate all your repetitive tasks.
There’s also a huge trend in business called Robotic Process Automation (RPA), which helps businesses to automate many tasks on a large scale.
Nevertheless, there are still some urgent tasks which are not very important but must be done and can’t really be delegated. There will always be number of these types of tasks on your to-do list. Some examples of such tasks are email replies, not so important meetings, etc.
There’s nothing wrong with having these types of tasks on your to-do list - you just have to make sure that they don’t occupy too much your time. If you keep this quadrant to around 20 % of all your tasks, you’re doing a great job.
Schedule: Not Urgent + Important
This quadrant is about putting yourself and the most important projects that are not time sensitive in the spot they deserve. It consists of the tasks that are not really urgent, but very important for your long-term success.
There are two types of tasks that are important and not urgent:
- Doing deep work on the most important projects and high-value tasks.
- Sharpening the saw - meaning investing in yourself with activities like sports, taking time to eat healthy food, reading and educating yourself, nurturing good business and personal relationships, etc.
The main problem with this quadrant is that it takes self-discipline. You need to schedule or timebox the activities and then really perform them. You must make sure that nothing comes between you and the important tasks that you schedule.
It’s very easy to neglect this quadrant since you can always reschedule tasks that are not really urgent, but that also means you are neglecting your long-term goals and the chance to advance your career, progress in life, and take really good care of yourself.
If we neglect this quadrant too much, sooner or later life makes start paying attention to the important tasks. We all know exactly what happens if we neglect our health for too long.
Do first: Urgent + Important
Last, but not least, we have the key quadrant, where all the tasks that are urgent and important reside. Logically, these are the tasks that you should do first.
It’s not hard to identify these tasks, since they are time sensitive and usually have big negative consequences if they are not performed.
If a deadline for big and important projects is approaching, you don’t have much choice but to focus and deliver. You can’t postpone a childbirth, for example.
How should you use the Eisenhower matrix?
In practice, there are two ways to use the Eisenhower matrix. The first is to actually have your to-do list divided into the four aforementioned quadrants and separate your tasks according to which quadrant they fit into.
You can also use tags for tasks, and there are several online software solutions to help you do so. For example, you can use a time tracker for each task and tag every task in which quadrant does it fall.
The second way is to have the four types of quadrants or task types in mind when you’re planning your to-do list and calendar. You should have the important, but not urgent, tasks regularly scheduled in your calendar.
That is probably the most important aspect of the whole picture. The urgent and important tasks will find their way onto your schedule on their own. For the other tasks, you must make sure that you delegate or automate them, or simply say no.
Our final piece of advice on the Eisenhower matrix is that it can help you to avoid the urgency trap. You don’t want to be constantly in urgency mode, putting out fires, always being behind and constantly beat.
By proactively organizing your time and focusing on the important tasks, you should do fewer things, but those which are of the utmost importance. So the conclusion would be, yes, the Eisenhower matrix still stands true as an excellent tool to help you set your priorities right.