The Eisenhower Method
It happens to all of us on a given day. We try desperately to wrap our brains around endless to-do lists while being constantly sidetracked by phone calls and emails.
Our brains aren’t equipped to keep track of so many things at once and, before we know it, it’s just one big overwhelming cloud that makes us want to put our head in the sand. It’s hard to know where to start or what to prioritize to move the needle.
If this sounds like you, we’ve got good news: you may not realize it yet, but a clever productivity method coined by a former president could be a huge help.
What is the Eisenhower Method?
The Eisenhower Method and its implementation tool, the Eisenhower Matrix, are ways to prioritize your tasks based on how urgent and important they are.
The method encourages you to divide your tasks into different boxes based on how time-sensitive, urgent, and important they are. This way, you’ll know which tasks should be at the top of your to-do list and which you can delegate or place on the back burner.
In case you’re wondering, yes, the Eisenhower Method was created by that Eisenhower. At least, the original idea was.
Eisenhower famously said in a speech, “I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”
This inspired Stephen Covey to develop this principle into a specific tool, the Eisenhower Matrix (also referred to as the Eisenhower Box). Best known as the author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey has an impressive record of helping people with productivity, and the Eisenhower Matrix features prominently in his iconic book.
How to Use The Eisenhower Matrix
The Matrix is split into four different quadrants, and tasks should be divided in two ways. Firstly, into “urgent” or “not urgent” and then again into “important” and “not important.” For this to be effective, we need to define what is urgent and what is important. Giving a clear definition helps you determine which quadrant your task needs to go into.
If a task is urgent, it means that it needs to be completed imminently. For example, if something has a due date, or a client or customer has asked you to do something by the end of the working day, these would be considered urgent. However, it doesn’t have to be work-related – a car breakdown would also fall into the urgent category.
If an urgent task isn’t dealt with quickly, there will be some form of negative impact (e.g., you get stuck at the side of the road waiting to be towed, you annoy a client, or you miss a deadline).
The definition of important is more about your long-term goals and the tasks that relate to them. They may not need to happen immediately, but they are essential to what you want to accomplish down the road. Tasks falling into this category include business planning and networking. Again, it isn’t all about work, either. Going to the gym is an example of an important action item that will help you reach your overall fitness goal.
With those definitions in mind, here is a good example of what a completed Eisenhower Matrix looks like:
Once you’ve got your quadrants full, here is a quick guide for dispatching the tasks:
- Urgent + Important = Do these first. They are time sensitive, and you have to do them yourself.
- Not Urgent + Important = Schedule these for later.
- Urgent + Not Important = Delegate these tasks. They are time sensitive but could easily be done by someone else. If delegation is impossible, do these tasks only after all tasks from number 1 are complete.
- Not Urgent + Not Important = Delete these unneccesary tasks.
Useful Tips for Implementing the Eisenhower Method
Simply having a matrix and definition isn’t enough; it’s all about putting the method into practice. Here are some useful tips for getting the most out of the method.
- Learn how to distinguish the urgent from the important
This is a tricky but crucial concept to work out. If something is urgent, it often feels important by default. It is in your face and demands your attention there and then. Someone needs you to mail a report by 3pm, so it must be important. Right? Not necessarily. First, just because someone wants something quickly doesn’t make it automatically urgent for you. Also, many things may seem urgent, but they really don’t move the needle.
Chasing up a service provider to see if the equipment you ordered for a conference may be urgent, but is it important? Not in the sense of moving you closer to your goals. It is time sensitive, but it isn’t going to land you the new client you’re working on.
- Color coding is your friend
Four different quadrants and categories can get a little confusing. Color coding allows you to easily distinguish where you have decided a task should be in the matrix and choose how much attention to pay it instantly. If you’ve decided that tasks that are both urgent and important should be coded red, anything in red on your to-do list or productivity tool should be your number one priority. If you assign yellow to the “not urgent” and “not important” tasks, you know that any yellow tasks don’t need to take up your time and should be deleted.
- Don’t overcrowd your quadrants
This is about making it easier to manage your time, not harder. Overcrowding quadrants will defeat the purpose and make you feel more overwhelmed. Find a manageable number and limit each quadrant to this number of items.
- Take advantage of productivity tools
Productivity tools can also help implement the Eisenhower Method. Many allow you to tag or color code tasks, meaning that as soon as something enters your to-do list, you can apply the principles of the Eisenhower Method and treat the task accordingly. Productivity tools also help you to assign the right amount of time to each task. With a clear idea of what is most important, your productivity tools can help you to put these first and dedicate your focus to the right areas.
- Rebalance your Matrix
If your matrix has an overload of tasks in one quadrant, you need to ask yourself what the reasons might be and address them. For example, too many tasks in the urgent and important category might mean you’ve taken too much on or left too many things until the last minute. If too many items are in the not urgent and not important category, maybe you’re not placing enough importance on the right tasks to help you reach your goals.
- Make to-do lists for your quadrants
Each quadrant should have its own to-do list, and you may end up with four to-do lists this way (three if you are happy to bin anything that is not urgent or important). Naturally, you should tackle the urgent and important quadrant to-do list first. This gives a clear hierarchy of importance when deciding what to do first. What once was an overwhelming cloud of incomplete tasks is now a neat list with clear objectives and priorities.
The beauty of the Eisenhower Method is in its simplicity, and it is one of the most straightforward ways to determine if a task is worth your time and whether you need to address it now or later.
Use it to cut through workplace chaos and keep a perspective over which tasks take you forward. It also helps you avoid the “urgency trap,” a phenomenon where too many demands make us rush through decision-making. With so many people demanding your time and attention, it is all too easy to feel rushed and focus on the wrong things or make poor decisions.
Those practicing the Eisenhower Method can build their self-discipline in the former president's image. You don’t reach the levels of success Dwight D. Eisenhower managed in both the military and within the government without being disciplined and having a clear vision of where your focus should lie.
Summary – Embracing the Eisenhower Method
This productivity method is one of many tools you can use to work out where best to place your attention and efforts. It is a simple concept that can be condensed into a simple matrix, but combined with the right productivity tools and attitude, it can make an immense difference.