If you’ve been reading my stuff for a while, you know that I’m big into personal development, productivity, and planning/organization.
I’m also still a somewhat major procrastinator.
There are times (more often than I’d like) when I put things off almost indefinitely because there are so many things to do and I haven’t “prioritized” them effectively.
I mentioned in a post on nightly planning that one method for prioritizing your to-do list is to use an Eisenhower Matrix.
What is an Eisenhower Matrix?
An Eisenhower Matrix is a simple tool to help you decide what is important, not important, urgent, or not urgent. The matrix consists of four boxes that combine those identifiers into actions to take regarding the tasks you’re evaluating.
- Important & Urgent — Do It Now
- Important & Not Urgent — Decide When to Do It
- Not Important & Urgent — Delegate It
- Not Important & Not Urgent — Delete It
As you might have guessed from its name, Dwight D. Eisenhower came up with this decision matrix while serving as America’s 34th President from 1953–1961. He had a lot of important decisions to make and needed a way to easily categorize those decisions.
Thus, the important/urgent matrix was born. Many people nowadays only know about it because Steven Covey popularized it in his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
How Do I Use One?
It’s pretty simple.
You really only need to ask two questions:
- Is it important?
- Is it urgent?
The answer to those questions decides which box you land in.
Important & Urgent
This box contains tasks you should do now. Preferably right now, but by tomorrow at the latest. It can also include things that you can complete in under two minutes, like putting the dish you just used into the dishwasher instead of the sink or staging the laundry basket by the washer.
Examples of tasks that are important and urgent:
- The basement is flooding and you need to get a plumber there ASAP
- Performance review self-assessments are due tomorrow
- Your cat’s vet appointment is today
- You post to your blog twice a week and haven’t scheduled tomorrow’s post yet
Important & Not Urgent
This box is where you want to be most often. It contains big personal projects and goals that you decided to complete, but you haven’t decided when you’ll be doing them. For me, this includes finishing my decluttering project, completing my book, and continuing my interviews with my grandma about her life.
Important & Not Urgent tasks are sometimes long-lead things, but they should be taking you one step (or multiple steps) in the direction you ultimately want your life to take.
This category also includes scheduling doctors’ appointments in the future, saving up for retirement or your child’s college fund, planning a long-awaited vacation to the southern hemisphere, and other such things.
They are important (to you) but not really “urgent.”
They are things you need to decide when to do because they are not “urgent enough” to do them now.
Examples of tasks and projects that are important, and not urgent:
- Decluttering your home
- Developing a healthy lifestyle
- Writing a book
- Completing an online course
- Building up a side-hustle
- Spending quality time with your friends and family
- Designing your dream house
Not Important & Urgent
This box contains tasks you should delegate to someone else. They’re not important to you, but they’re urgent — to either you or to someone else.
Letting these things pass into another’s hands can be difficult for those people who are used to doing everything themselves and don’t trust others to do it as well as they could.
This is a common hang-up for some people — “my way or the highway” attitude that eventually slows them down until they are drowning in things they should’ve handed off ages ago.
What Does “Delegation” Actually Mean?
Merriam Webster defines it as such:
- to entrust to another
- to appoint as one’s representative
- to assign responsibility or authority
A lot of times, delegation happens informally. Someone calls you asking about something, but you aren’t the right person to ask. So you tell them that and give them the name of someone who can help. You just delegated the responsibility of answering the question to someone else, without them knowing about it.
Examples of tasks that are not important, but urgent:
- Answering customer emails
- Creating graphics for your blog posts (I use Canva)
- Scheduling social media in advance
For small business owners, the items that fall into this category are also things that are not in your “zone of genius” but still need to get done in order to run your business efficiently. This is a great list of tasks for a virtual assistant to tackle.
Not Important & Not Urgent
If something lands in this box, you should delete it. They do not deserve or require any more of your brain power, so why waffle on them? Let them go.
Examples of tasks that are not important and not urgent:
- Scrolling through Instagram and Facebook for the zillionth time this morning
- Checking email every few minutes when you should be doing something else
- Keeping up with all your favorite YouTubers at the risk of letting other tasks slip through the cracks
- Letting old emails stay in your inbox because you’re not quite sure what to do with them (answer: archive them. They’ll still be there later.)
- Being “artsy” with your planner if you’re not an artsy person
There’s something of a theme here. What lives in this box?
The things we do to pass the time when we don’t want to be doing something else.
Several years ago I spent almost an entire summer binge-watching the Vlogbrothers YouTube channel, back when my parents’ internet didn’t suck. Were there more productive things I could have done that summer? Absolutely.
But I binge-watched almost 1,000 videos instead. (I am no longer “up-to-date” with their videos.)
I don’t do stuff like that anymore.
It might be difficult to imagine what things could land in this quadrant of the matrix until something actually does. Is it urgent or important that I stay up-to-date with all the new movie releases?
No. But I used to. That was one thing I “let go” or “deleted” when I realized it was not either important or urgent.
Caveat: I’m not saying you should entirely give up the things that are not important or urgent, like watching videos on YouTube or whatever. The Eisenhower Matrix isn’t designed to eliminate the things you love, it’s designed to assign priority levels.
Some things that end up in the “Delete” box can end up used for relaxation or entertainment later. Such as watching The Matrix.
Impact vs. Effort
Try looking at the Eisenhower Matrix with a different spin on it.
What’s the relationship between effort and impact for your tasks? In other words, how much effort do you put in, and what impact does that task have?
Low Effort, Low Impact
If your unimportant yet urgent items require low effort and yield low impact, how urgent is it really? You may be able to whittle your list down by evaluating how impactful some decisions are.
Low effort, low impact tasks are loosely tied to the not important/not urgent box.
Low Effort, High Impact
The dream task type, amirite? Put a little work in, get a lot of results out. “Low effort” might mean it doesn’t take very long, in which case you could move this task into the “do now” quadrant regardless of its importance. It could also mean it takes very little brainpower, in which case you could “decide” to do it at a later time when you’d otherwise be vegging out on the couch.
Low effort, high impact tasks are loosely tied to the important/urgent box.
High Effort, Low Impact
The “yikes” tasks take a lot of work yet produce meager results. The response that comes to mind is “That’s it?” You can either delegate or delete these, but try not to spend too much time on them if you can help it.
High effort, low impact tasks are loosely tied to the not important/urgent box.
High Effort, High Impact
These tasks, which take a lot of effort yet give big results are also the most satisfying. The more work you put in, the bigger your outcome, and the more satisfied you feel.
High effort, high impact tasks are loosely tied to the important/not urgent box.
When Should I Use the Eisenhower Matrix?
You should use an Eisenhower Matrix when you have a pile of tasks and responsibilities that you’re hesitating about because you don’t know where to start.
Running tasks and situations through this lens (without getting hung up on your feelings) lets you filter out the real priority level for your tasks.
Should you use this for everything you do? Probably not. For most things, it’ll be an easy gut-check to know what you should do about something.
- Is the deadline today or tomorrow? Do it now.
- Is it goals-related? Decide when to do it.
- Are you the right person for the task? No? Delegate it.
- Do you keep moving it forward on your to-do list, thinking “not right now”? Maybe you should delete it instead.
Questions You Might Have
As with any new tool, you’ll come up with questions about it. Let me try to answer a few of them.
What If There’s More Than One “Important/Urgent” Item?
There are going to be a lot of “Important & Urgent” items on your list. I currently have several because they all need to get done either today or tomorrow. There will always be things in this box.
The way I deal with this is to sort them by when they need to get done today (or tomorrow) and how important I think they are to complete. Back when I just wrote out my to-dos on a small yellow pad, I’d think through the order in which I wanted to do things and write the number next to it in a circle. I still do this sometimes because the tactile experience of writing it down and crossing it out helps cement it in my brain.
There’s no “one way” to sort things — it’s all according to the magnitude of each task’s importance and urgency to you.
If the vet appointment is scheduled for 4 PM, you can bet that at 4 PM we’ll be at the vet, and I don’t schedule anything else for that time slot on the calendar.
Try not to let indecision paralyze you. Pick something and work on it — get it done and then move on to the next thing. You’re only wasting time by putting off the decision.
What If I Can’t Delegate “Unimportant/Urgent” Items?
Delegation sounds nice — but what about those of us who don’t have direct reports, or maybe you’re on your own in life? Maybe you don’t have the budget for a virtual assistant, and you need to do all the little things yourself.
Set aside time to do all the things at once. This is called batching — you block out 60–90 minutes on your calendar to do nothing but the unimportant/urgent tasks that are related.
For bloggers, batching is a common method to crank out blog posts, create post graphics, and schedule social media. As a “solopreneur” I do this, though most of my blog posts are written in 500-word spurts every morning. I batch most everything else when I can.
Similar to batching is having “themed” days for your tasks. Many people have themed cleaning days to keep the house in order. “Toilet Tuesday” is a memorable one.
Theming is also great for meal planning. “Taco Tuesday” has a better ring to it, don’t you think? As a keto-er, I’m not quite sure about “Meatless Monday”, though…
You can also look into automation. As a classically trained engineer, I like looking for ways to take myself out of the equation when it comes to getting things done. This happens a lot at my day job; I spend a lot of time in Smartsheet and use it to streamline a lot of processes in my company. (Smartsheet forms reduce a lot of the time spent emailing back-and-forth for pertinent information.)
The less time I spend making decisions and gathering information is a win in my book.
An example of “automation” is creating an FAQ page for the most frequently asked questions piling up in your inbox.
Another workaround for these unimportant yet urgent tasks is to consider the Pareto principle. Twenty percent of your activities bring 80% of the results — are these unimportant and urgent things contributing to the 20% of progress-inducing activities, or do they fall into the other 80%?
You can also delegate important & urgent items.
For example, last year we were regularly hit with water usage overages and as a two-person household, we don’t even come close to using enough water to constitute an overage.
This was important to us to resolve and had an element of urgency to it — we didn’t want to be charged any more overages! But I couldn’t give it the required time and attention because I had my job to do, and dealing with this issue was in danger of taking up time at work.
So I “delegated” this important and urgent problem and its resolution to my husband. He was able to handle the communication and troubleshooting with the apartment manager and in the end, we got a refund for all the overages (because of a faulty meter).
Sometimes it’s important to realize and understand that not everything has to be done on my terms. I often like to think that if I don’t do it, it won’t get done right, but this is faulty logic when you’ve got too many things on your plate and need to hand some things off — even if they’re important and urgent.
After that firehose of information to the face, are you overwhelmed by it all?
Don’t be. The Eisenhower Matrix is super simple to use, and there’s even an online app to help you sort things. (It functions as a “to do” list too, meaning you can check things off!)
For some people, all you really need to do to use the Eisenhower Matrix is to ask those two questions from way at the top:
- Is it important?
- Is it urgent?
In the end, the answers to those two questions determine what you do next.
Try it out! What are some tasks or projects you’re sitting on because you’re not sure where to start? Is it important? Is it urgent? Do it now, decide when to do it, delegate it, or delete it.
This post was originally posted on Inspired Forward on April 8th, 2019, under the title How to Effectively Use an Eisenhower Matrix.