Picture of the Eisenhower Matrix
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What is the Eisenhower Matrix?

Urgent vs Important
Did Eisenhower come up with this? see here

Have you ever spent a whole day running from one crisis to the next?  At the end of the day did you feel like you had actually accomplished anything or were you just exhausted with nothing to show for it?  Did you take care of urgent things all day and never get to the important things?  This is what the Eisenhower Matrix is all about solving.

Although we feel that we must be as productive as we can possibly be, it is more important that what we DO get done is that which is most important.

Where did the Eisenhower Matrix come from?

Although President Eisenhower got a lot of things done in his career and often spoke about doing important things rather than just urgent things, the Eisenhower Matrix of today was most popularly introduced by Steven Covey in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People in 1989.  The matrix has become a popular way to look at and improve time management.

What is the Eisenhower Matrix?

To use the matrix you must to define your tasks in two ways:

Urgency

Urgent tasks are those with an imminent deadline.  If you don’t get started on them now, they won’t get done in time.  Urgent tasks often feel like they are happening to you rather than something that you are controlling.  Often you are just reacting to them.  Our attention is naturally drawn to time sensitive tasks so these often get most of our attention. 

Not urgent tasks don’t have a deadline, or have a deadline so far in the future that you can put them off.

Importance

Important tasks are those that contribute to something that is important to you.  This is not the same as urgency!  Importance is personal.  What I think is important may not be important to you.  Goals and wishes should be important!  How else will things come to pass if they don’t get on the list and ranked as important.  Important tasks are usually those which we are planning for and have control over rather than reacting like we do to urgent tasks.

Using urgency and importance only, the matrix divides all your tasks into four quadrants as shown below:

If charts make you sweat, don’t.  The key to using the matrix so it makes a difference in your life is to classify things as important or not and as urgent or not.

What’s in the boxes?

Let me give you some examples of things that might fall into these different categories.

Important and Urgent (Green)

These tasks have deadlines and it is important that they get done.  They often feel like fires to put out.  It’s important to get this done right now, but it would have been better if it could have been prevented in the first place.  

An important and urgent task might be the result of your child calling because he is standing in the rain needing to be picked up from soccer practice. Yes, you are going to go pick him up (because his well being is important to you), now (because he needs you ASAP), but really, there should have been a plan made beforehand as to how he was going to get home.  

Not Important and Urgent (Purple)

These tasks have deadlines, but in the grand scheme of things, they really don’t matter too much or at least matter very much to you.  Perhaps they are things that could be done by someone else.

An example of this is a social media notification.  The ding alerts you and makes you look at the notification right away, but really, did you need to know that Aunt Sally liked your picture of your son playing soccer?

Not Important and Not Urgent (Red)

These tasks do not have deadlines and they really are not that important.  They are often things we do out of habit or procrastination.  They often could be completely eliminated from our lives.

Mindlessly flipping through Netflix, or your social media feed are perfect examples of not urgent, not important tasks for most people.  

Important and Not Urgent (Yellow)

This is where the magic happens in planning and the whole purpose of the Eisenhower Matrix.  Do you have something you’ve always wanted to do, but just never get around to because there’s no deadline?  These are typically things that would really make a difference in your life – your goals and dreams.

Finally cleaning out the basement, or taking your son to a professional soccer game are things that might get put off because of more urgent things.  But an organized basement free of clutter will bring peace every day and the experience of the game will be something you and your son will be able to talk about for many years.

Why does the Eisenhower Matrix matter?

Your greatest danger is letting the urgent things crowd out the important - Charles E Hummel, Tyranny of the Urgent

If you look at your list of things to do through the lenses of urgency and importance you will be less likely to fall into days of running from one crisis to another.  Your focus can be on importance rather than urgency. 

You can separate out the not urgent not important tasks and just eliminate them entirely.

You can pay attention to the important but not urgent tasks to make sure they get done instead of forgotten in the rush of urgency.

You don’t, however, have to rewrite your list into little boxes or download any fancy template.  Just make a few little extra notes on your to do list.

How to use the Eisenhower Matrix with a list – simply!

The Eisenhower Matrix without the boxes

Look at your To Do list (if you don’t have one, make one!)

Importance

First. consider each item and how important it is to you.  If it is important, then mark it with a star.  Not every item on that list should be marked with a star.  If they are, start thinking about the relative importance of each item on your list.  Are there any stars that you can erase?

Urgency

Next, mark those items on the list that are urgent with an exclamation mark.  Again, not all the items can be urgent.  Really, there are some that are truly urgent and others that are not urgent at all.

What to do with each kind of task

No stars or exclamation point

Are there some items without a star or an exclamation mark?  You should be able to just eliminate these not important not urgent tasks.  Just do it. Cross them off. Your life is too important to be wasting it on things that aren’t important and aren’t even urgent!  If it’s something you are doing for someone else, check with them to see if it’s actually important to them.  You might be surprised by what you find out.

Tasks with just a star

These important but not urgent tasks are where the magic of planning happens.  To prevent your day filling up with urgent tasks, schedule some time to work on these important tasks.  Because they are not urgent we often just keep putting them off.  I like to make them the first things I do in a day.  By getting something important done first thing, you will prevent that end of the day feeling that nothing important happened.

Tasks with both star and exclamation point 

These urgent and important tasks need to get done.  They need to go on your schedule next.  They won’t be hard to get done as their urgency is drawing your attention and they are actually important.  If your whole list is full of these types of tasks please do some thinking about why that might be.  Do you need to say no to emergencies others are forcing on you?  Are the tasks urgent because you failed to plan for them or have been procrastinating?  Having your whole day of * ! tasks is a recipe for burnout.

Tasks with exclamation point only

Any task that is not important should be questioned, even if it is urgent.  Perhaps it is important to someone, and it just needs to get done for now.  But if it is something that needs to be done, just not by you, consider delegating it.  This can be by delegating it to someone else to whom it matters more, or hiring someone to do it.

Margin

Remember to leave some margin!  There will be some urgent tasks that pop up.  If you leave room for them, they won’t be as disruptive or stressful!

What did you eliminate from your list?  

I’d love to hear how this worked for you.  DId you find anything that you had on your list that you were just doing out of habit?

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