Dwight D. Eisenhower, the five-star general and the 34th President of the United States, was heralded for his ability to lead and make decisions in times of conflict and duress. He prioritized people and resources above everything else. Yet, even in the darkest hours and most pivotal moments of World War II, Eisenhower was intensely ambitious and steadfastly positive.
And like many of our noteworthy luminaries, there remains a certain, almost apocryphal mystique behind how the legendary leader earned his own power-packed productivity tool. According to legend, the matrix below was attributed to Eisenhower, who said, “What is important is seldom urgent, and what is urgent is seldom important.”
Even if we’re not certain this matrix was created by Eisenhower himself, there’s not much difficulty in debating Eisenhower’s effectiveness in time management. It’s why the Eisenhower decision matrix exists today. His ability to manage his time and tasks was essentially a decision matrix—a framework for deciding what was important and what wasn’t.
Today, the system has been popularized by and is most often attributed to Stephen Covey, author of “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.”
Time management solutions are a helpful antidote to days filled with increasingly blurred deadlines, incessant noise, and excessive disruptions. Today, one of the biggest business challenges (and personal challenges, too) is how we can decide what’s urgent and what’s not. Once we clear that hurdle, procrastination melts away, and things start getting done.
Think of a task you need to do today. How do you decide when you’ll get it done, given all the competition from other items on your to-do list? This is where you can use the Eisenhower Matrix to help you figure it out. You decide which quadrant your tasks fall into based on both the urgency and the importance of your task. That then dictates where, when, and how long you should focus on that task.
Quadrant 1 – Do it immediately
Type: Urgent and important
These are the tasks and to-dos that need immediate attention. They are very important deadlines with the highest level of urgency.
Quadrant 2 – Decide when you’ll do it
Type: Important but not urgent
This is considered a strategic section of the matrix, perfect for long-term development. Items that belong here are important, but they don’t require your immediate attention.
Quadrant 3 – Delegate to somebody else
Type: Urgent but not important
Phone calls, emails, and last-minute meeting requests belong in this quadrant. These types of tasks usually don’t warrant your attention because they don’t produce measurable output. The goal of these tasks is to make an attempt at eliminating and reducing the things that don’t help you hit your goals.
For some, delegation can be an attractive option by offloading work to others so that the calls, emails, and requests can still be handled, freeing you to focus on things that matter more in other quadrants.
Quadrant 4 – Do it later
Type: Not important, not urgent
Activities that belong in this quadrant are time-sucking tasks that don’t contribute any value whatsoever. Simply put, this is the stuff of procrastination—the time-wasters that prevent us from accomplishing the more urgent and important tasks in the first two quadrants. It’s best for you to see them in this quadrant so you can work hard at completely eliminating them from your work day.
Choose your own color
To add a new dimension to your matrix, assign each of the sections in your system a color, and assign each color a priority level.
Red = urgent: Do this task immediately
Yellow = important, not urgent: Schedule this task for yourself
Green = urgent, not important: Delegate this task
Gray = not urgent, not important: Dump this task
If you’re tackling the matrix for your professional goals, you may start to see that many of your to-dos end up in quadrants one and three. The biggest payoff comes from actions in the second quadrant. These are the goal-setting and evaluation of business objectives that impact the long-term success of a business, yet, they are rarely classified as urgent.
Be a steward of your most precious resource: time.
- Make a list of the things you need to do.
- Label each of the things with a number, one through four (matching the matrix).
Now that you have written your list, you have an accurate representation of the things you need to work on and what is most pressing.
Urgent vs. important?
It’s a huge challenge to understand the things that take you off your projected course compared to the things that will move the needle. But if we don’t get a handle on this fundamental time management issue, it could leave a lot of us wishing we could get things done instead of actually getting them done.
Instead of focusing solely on the ‘urgent and important’ quadrant of the Eisenhower Matrix, ask yourself these questions to help set the future for your long-term decision-making strategies.
- When will you deal with the tasks that are important but not urgent?
- When will you take the time to deal with the important tasks before they suddenly become urgent?
If an emergency comes up, your priorities will change. For example, if you own a small business, and a customer calls and asks to speak to a manager about missed expectations, that suddenly takes precedence over other action items in your matrix.
Do more with the Eisenhower Matrix
Here are a few more tips on using the matrix to your advantage so you can accomplish more.
- To-do lists help ease your mind. How you employ a list is up to you, but make sure you question what you need to accomplish first. Priority is key!
- The point of each quadrant is to add many actions and tasks, but it will get over-complicated if you have more than seven or eight action items. The goal is to get more things done.
- Try creating one list and matrix for personal tasks and another for professional tasks.
- Only you get to define the priority level of the action items on your list. Create a to-do list every morning or week, and you’ll start to experience how it feels to accomplish your tasks.
Originally published on May 2, 2017. Updated on October 19, 2022.