What is the Eisenhower Matrix?
Dwight D. Eisenhower is best known for the two terms he served as president of the United States back in the 1950s, as well as leading the NATO Allied Command to victory in Europe during World War II. He is routinely referenced as one of history’s great leaders, particularly for his level-headedness, restraint, and logical approach to managing massive, chaotic organizations, like a military or country at war.
There is no doubt a world of lessons we could take from Eisenhower’s wisdom, but for the sake of our series about productivity on this blog, we’re going to focus on one of his ideas that will help you make better decisions about what to work on and when: the Eisenhower Matrix.
Eisenhower first introduced this idea during a speech he gave at Northwestern University in 1954 in which he shared with the public:
“I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower
He repeated variations on this idea throughout his career in public life, as he became a sought-after writer and speaker in the years after his presidency. But the most widely known version of the quote is that “What is important is seldom urgent, and what is urgent is seldom important.”
Eisenhower’s point really made two insights in one: there are some important things that should get the bulk of your attention, and there are some things that seem urgent, but you shouldn’t be doing at all (even though they probably take up most of your time.) That insight might have come from his long military career, a line of work in which everyone has a more well-defined role to play than civilian jobs, but there’s a lot we can learn from this approach to priorities and delegation.
The basic idea of the Eisenhower Matrix is that there are different levels of urgency and importance for all of the things we “need” to get done in a day. In fact, some of them don’t need to be done at all, or can be handled by someone else. Sometimes, urgency and importance might look the same on the surface, when in reality, there are many things that look urgent and attract our attention that don’t actually help us achieve our goals.
In fact, everything on our to-do list falls into one of four categories in this Matrix: not urgent and not important, important but not urgent, urgent but not important (these are the real enemy,) and tasks that are urgent and important.
Obviously, tasks that are urgent and important should take priority, and be done first. You can see why these kinds of tasks would be critical for winning a World War or running a large, complicated country like the United States. They’re just as critical for running a business or managing any kind of career that requires a lot of productive output under pressure.
However, in every aspect of your life, there is going to be pressure to address the most urgent tasks first, whether they are important or not. Even if those tasks are obviously not a great use of our time, there’s a social obligation to keep up with certain things like Slack and email. Likewise, tasks that are important, but not urgent, can be easy to overlook, even if they are a better use of your time and attention in the long run. Unfortunately, more urgent but also unimportant tasks have become a big part of the modern workplace, but the Eisenhower Matrix is a great way to break through all of that noise and reclaim your most valuable time.
Take email for instance. It would be easy to leave your inbox open all day long, quickly addressing every issue or question someone sends to you, answering urgent concerns without worrying about whether they help move the business forward. To be honest, that would probably make the people you work with pretty happy, at least for a little while.
But for the grand majority of us, in the grand majority of industries, that’s probably a terrible use of your time. Sure, people appreciate rapid replies to their emails, but that’s not what you were actually hired to do. It’s part of the job, and we all have to deal with our email, but that doesn’t mean it’s important!
Chances are, there are any number of things more important you could be doing than responding to emails that quickly, and that matter a great deal more to your performance at work. That’s even more important if you’re an entrepreneur trying to figure out the most efficient way to spend your time and manage your team.
Now, it’s easy to beat up on email, since it is a part of all of our jobs these days, we all get way too much of it, and no one’s actually excited about having to deal with it. But what happens when you get into the gray area where it’s difficult to decide between two tasks that are both urgent and important in their own ways?
That’s where the Eisenhower Matrix can be enormously helpful for making the best decision about what to do first. The truth is that, unless something is both urgent and important, it probably doesn’t deserve your attention! So let’s dive into how to practically use this principle in your work.
How to Use the Eisenhower Matrix
To start applying Eisenhower’s wisdom to your work, the first thing you need to do is sit down and take stock of everything on your plate. Get out your to-do list and your calendar (bonus points if your to-do list is already on your schedule!) and start making notes on what’s urgent and what’s important. Woven’s labels and color coding are great for helping you visualize this.
Pay special attention to things that you’ve marked urgent and important. You might want to start work on those before you even finish this process.
Next, we’re going to walk through a step by step plan for implementing the Eisenhower Matrix in your job or business.
Step 1: Prioritizing
By now, you should have already assigned “urgent,” “important,” or neither to everything on your to-do list. If you haven’t, take a step back and do that now. In this first phase, we’re going to reflect on the things that you’ve marked urgent or important, and especially the tasks you’ve decided deserve both tags.
Take some time to evaluate which of those goals are the most urgent. If you’ve already decided they’re all important, time pressures quickly become relevant again. For instance, a major new feature that’s at the start of a 90 day roadmap is just as important as a launch you have scheduled for next week, but the urgency is dramatically different, and significant in this scenario. This isn’t an “urgent” reply to a memo, it’s a critical deadline you need to meet.
In this case, urgency is great! When you limit your focus to the most important tasks on your list, urgency can be a really helpful factor for ordering which work comes first and deserves your best hours of focus. Move that to the next best time block on your Woven calendar.
Repeat this for all of your urgent and important tasks, but set aside everything that’s important, but not urgent, for a few minutes.
Step 2: Eliminating
Now that you’ve handled the most obvious, and most critical set of tasks, let’s turn our attention to the things on your list that aren’t urgent –or– important. From now on, we’re going to refer to those as the tasks you need to eliminate.
If you’re the boss, this step is easy – as Bob Newhart said, STOP IT! Just delete them from your calendar now and be glad you did. If there’s anything that gives you pause before you delete it, give it a new tag in Woven – “delegate.” We’ll get to that in a moment, but for now, your focus should be on ruthlessly evaluating the things you normally spend your time on, uncovering the ones that don’t really need to be done, or that don’t make sense for you to do when you have higher order priorities to attend to.
Some of these things can just be cut out completely, but there’s a good chance that they’re on your list for a reason, and that the reason reveals some structural problems about the way you work. Maybe you’re subscribed to too many email lists. Maybe you’re taking on low-value tasks because you struggle to trust your employees, or have hired employees you can’t trust. Maybe you’re creating busy work to delay a project you’re anxious about.
Delete them from your calendar, but spend some time reflecting on why you agreed to do them in the first place. This can be a great way to uncover other problems in your workplace or your business.
Step 3: Scheduling
Now that we’ve prioritized the things that are urgent and important, and removed the things you shouldn’t have been doing in the first place, we want to make sure you don’t lose track of the things that are still important, but don’t need to be done tomorrow. It’s easy to fall into a routine of handling only what’s urgent and losing track of some of the projects that might be opportunities for growth, but don’t have a firm deadline.
That’s where scheduling can be a lifesaver. Zoom out of the daily or weekly view on your Woven calendar for a bit to take a look at your month and see where you have some quiet days coming up, or at least days that haven’t been filled up yet. It’s much easier to defend a time block that has already been booked to work on a long term project than it is to squeeze an hour or two into a busy calendar. Look a couple of weeks out and set aside some dedicated time blocks to move those important projects forward.
It’s normal for projects that aren’t urgent to fall through the cracks, but we want to build a safety net to make sure you have time to finish them anyways, even if your normal schedule is crazy. Trust that the meetings and phone calls will find another time that suits you if you’ve already blocked out time to get the big things done.
Step 4: Delegating
Last but not least, we’re going to circle back to the “unimportant” tasks that you just couldn’t bring yourself to delete. That’s a sign that they’re not completely unimportant, but it’s also a sign that they’re not important enough for you to do them. That’s where delegation comes in.
It’s not always easy to learn how to hand things off that are below our paygrade, but it’s an important skill, and one that the Eisenhower Matrix makes a lot clearer. We’re willing to guess that, after you’ve scheduled all your urgent-important tasks, and made room to finish the important-not-urgent tasks in the future, there isn’t all that much time left on your calendar.
That’s good! The reality of productivity, especially if you’re good at what you do, is that there are more important tasks to do than you could ever get done in a day. That’s because you’ve proved yourself to be a talented and efficient person, not because you’re failing to get everything done. That’s the reason every general commands hundreds of officers, and why the president fills half the White House with people who help them get things done.
But if you’re new to delegating, or a bit of a control freak, it can be difficult to hand things off at first – after all, if you want it done right, you do it yourself. Unfortunately, that’s not a viable strategy for becoming an effective person. Instead, you have to become a leader, and your urgent-unimportant tasks are a perfect place to start.
What would Eisenhower do? Well, before he hired a Chief of Staff or Lieutenants, I’d bet he hired an assistant. If your calendar is full of urgent tasks that are keeping you from the important ones, you should probably get some help too, or trust them to take more off of your plate.
The point of the Eisenhower Matrix is to get you to realize that there are more urgent tasks than you could ever get done in a day, and to acknowledge that they get in the way of the important tasks you’re responsible for solving. It can help you put more emphasis on the important parts of your work, while also recognizing the things that someone else should be doing for you, or things that don’t really need to be done at all.
Eisenhower introduced this idea in 1945, but he spent the rest of his life discussing it in speeches and articles, long after he left office. It’s safe to say he believed it was one of his most important insights as a leader, and to his credit, it’s helped thousands of other people make better decisions about what they work on and why.
If it can help run a country and help win a world war, it can help you be more effective in your work.