The Eisenhower Matrix: how to work proactively instead of reactively

Geoffrey Keating
Jan 8, 2019 · 4 min read

One of the best pieces I received last year was from Intercom’s COO, Karen Peacock. When asked how she stays focused and productive, her advice was simple: check your calendar/goals before you check email/Slack. This simple shift helps her start her day focused on what’s significant, rather than simply reacting to what looks urgent.

If separating the most important work from the not so important on a daily basis sounds easy, it is not. I used to work in consulting, where everything is a priority and the modus operandi was to react to new information at all times. As a result, I was hard-wired into working reactively and at the end of the day I would feel completely sapped and drained of energy, and yet couldn’t point to anything I had accomplished of real significance.

It is only over the past 2–3 years that I’ve managed to rid myself of these bad habits, in large parts thanks to advice from people like Karen and also thanks to The Eisenhower Technique, a simple decision-making tool that you can draw on a napkin and start using today.

When he wasn’t invading North Africa, France and Germany, Dwight Eisenhower, the 34th President of he United States, was best known for being a legendary decision maker and he put together a matrix by which you can separate your actions. There are essentially four types of work that land on your desk:

Quadrant 1: Urgent and important (tasks you should do immediately).

Quadrant 2: Important, but not urgent (tasks you should schedule to do later).

Quadrant 3: Urgent, but not important (tasks you will delegate to someone else).

Quadrant 4: Neither urgent nor important (tasks that you will stop doing).

The idea is that all of your tasks can be sorted into four quadrants, with axes of Important and Urgent on either side. By assigning each task to a quadrant, it is easy to understand what actually requires your attention this very second, what can wait until another day and what’s probably not a good use of your time.

When I first discovered this framework, I hadn’t really considered the distinction between importance and urgency. Instead I equated the two — which meant that I gave priority to the time-sensitive tasks that made me feel a surge of accomplishment (and dopamine!) upon completion.

Another request via Slack! Just give me five minutes! Need me to jump on this raging fire? No problem!

By using the Eisenhower Matrix to plan my day to day work, it helped me figure out how to triage the things I wanted to do in a given period of time (mostly stuff in Quadrant 1), without having Slack and email be the centerpiece of my days (mostly stuff in Quadrant, 2, 3 and 4).

Nowadays, instead of checking my email/Slack first thing in the morning here’s how I start my day — The Eisenhower Matrix translated into a simple to-do list in Coda. There’s a list for each quadrant, as well as an “incoming” list where I dump everything I need to do, and triage when I’m ready. It looks something like this:

This might seem like a heavyweight process to start each morning, but it only takes 5–10 minutes, a valuable outlay for what you get in return. Ultimately, it helps me focus on my long-term goals by clearing out the distracting shallow work that won’t ultimately improve my career.

Additional reading:

Urgent means that a task requires immediate attention. These are the to-do’s that shout “Now!” Urgent tasks put us in a reactive mode, one marked by a defensive, negative, hurried, and narrowly-focused mindset.

Important tasks are things that contribute to our long-term mission, values, and goals. Sometimes important tasks are also urgent, but typically they’re not. When we focus on important activities we operate in a responsive mode, which helps us remain calm, rational, and open to new opportunities.

Geoffrey Keating

Written by

Writing, editing and marketing @intercom. I write my personal things here.

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