The Eisenhower Matrix

Dwight D. Eisenhower, official portrait as Pre...

President Eisenhower reportedly managed his tasks by categorizing them into a 2×2 matrix with the dimensions of importance and urgency. We describe this method as the Eisenhower Method or the Eisenhower Matrix. This article describes what the Eisenhower Matrix is, how to think like it, how to use it, and briefly introduces Priority Matrix applications as a software solution to managing it.

There are a couple of reasons why you should follow this methodology.

  1. First, it gives clarity to where you should personally focus your attention.
  2. Second, it is easy for others to understand where your priorities are simply by looking at how you categorize your tasks.
  3. It improves your own personal prioritizing skills because categorizing your tasks into a 2×2 matrix forces you to *think* about how important each task is.

Let’s do a few definitions to make sure we’re on the same boat.

What is Important?

Important tasks are value adding tasks. Naturally, value has a broad definition, and depending on your choice and perspective, it would give different implications. For simplicity sake, we can choose to orient importance around economic value. A wonderful quote that describes value is:

“The value of a thing in any given time and place is the largest amount of exertion that anyone will render in exchange for it. But as men always seek to gratify their desires with the least exertion this is the lowest amount for which a similar thing can otherwise be obtained.” – Henry George Source

Incidentally, value can also refer to morality, and many other measures. Therefore, when we work on things that are important, we are ensuring that we are working on things that are more relevant, and more valuable. It’s boils down to a comparison between our different choices. To a specific individual, importance is certainly in context and with respect to all the other things that person can do. A President, within his job and context, has to deprioritize his least important tasks, even if that may be in fact more important than any of my tasks. Likewise, you have to choose what tasks are important to you, given the nature of your responsibilities and job function.

What is Urgent?

Urgency refers to the timeliness of a task. There are several reasons we may want to classify task as urgent, including:

  1. Deadline, where not meeting this deadline would cause a failure in the project (e.g, a homework assignment, or meeting a conference submission schedule)
  2. Opportunity loss, where every moment we’re not doing a task is a missed opportunity (e.g., improving a sales landing page, replying to a customer inquiry).
  3. Meeting an expectation, where an actual deadline is not specified, but the sooner this task is done, there is added value elsewhere (e.g., picking up a friend from the airport as opposed to leaving her stranded).

Equally important, tasks that are not urgent are tasks where time may not have as much of an impact. Of course, urgency can change as a function of time. An example is putting your laundry in the drier. Over the course of a day, it is relatively not-urgent. However, at some point, it has to be done. It takes a small amount of time, but as the day goes by, the urgency of drying your clothes before bedtime becomes relevant.

Implementation of Eisenhower Matrix

Now that we have some clarity on definition, lets revisit the Eisenhower Matrix. To use the Eisenhower Matrix, we follow several steps:

  1. Be prepared to write down all your tasks (at roughly the same level of complexity)
  2. Be prepared to think about whether each task is important or not, and whether it’s urgent or not
  3. Think about the context of the project with respect to your colleagues, job function and environment

Classifying your tasks

Now that you are ready, classify your tasks into these 4 quadrants:

  1. Quadrant 1: Important and Urgent (top left) – Crisis. Things that have to be done now because they are both important and time sensitive. Having a lot of items here indicate that you may have had some poor planning up to now.
  2. Quadrant 2: Important and not urgent (top right) – Planning. These are the most value adding tasks that you have to do. They don’t have to be done now, but they can be prioritized and readied for actual execution. Getting rid of these tasks should be your priority after handling the crisis.
  3. Quadrant 3: Low importance and urgent (bottom left) – Reactive. These are administrative, or other non-value adding tasks that won’t go away, but tackling them also is not your core job function. These tasks are best delegated to people who are specialized. If you are in a management position, these are key tasks that are candidates for delegations so that they can be done, but do not consume a significant amount of your mental and physical resources.
  4. Quadrant 4: Low importance and not urgent (bottom right) – Time waster. These are tasks that are not relevant to your work, nor do they need to be done now. Classify them and then throw them away.
  5. Quadrant 4 (alternative): I think writing down your time waster is a waste of time. Instead use quadrant 4 as your inbox, or repository of all tasks that are can’t be categorized into any of the other quadrants yet.

That’s it. Now you are ready to implement the Eisenhower principle in real life for your business and personal life.

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