The Eisenhower Matrix

The Eisenhower Matrix is a simple model that I learned when I started my productivity journey in earnest. Some years ago, when I was a junior professor having just graduated my PhD program, I found myself in my dream job and still very stressed out. Something wasn't right and I lucked into a two-part, 8-hour course labeled "Time Management for Microsoft Outlook." The course was life changing for me because I learned about the Eisenhower Matrix.

The Five Choices and Seven Habits

I chuckle at the time management course that I took because the first four hours had nothing to do with Microsoft Outlook. The course overall was based on the work by {authors here} titled The Five Choices: The Path to Extraordinary Productivity, which is a follow-on to Stephen Covey's classic The Seven Habits of Highly Effective people. Both books are great reads and I have a post on my notes on each book here.

In both books, the Eisenhower Matrix (named after Dwight D. Eisenhower) is called the Time Management Matrix. The matrix is also called the Eisenhower Box, the Eisenhower Method, and the Urgent-Important Matrix. This latter title is descriptive of the matrix because the key to the model is understanding the difference between an urgency and and importance.

Here's the model:

Urgent vs. important

So the box above has four quadrants, but each of the quadrants within the box depends on a combination of whether or not a task is urgent and whether or not a task is important.

What's the difference?

An urgent task has immediacy to it. It's time sensitive: Do it now, it's due soon, right away or, (my least favorite term) 'Hot!'. Urgent tasks feel like the should be completed as soon as possible. Covey put it best in 7 Habits:

Urgent matters are usually visible. They press on us; they insist on action. They're often popular with others. They're usually right in front of us. And often they are pleasant, easy, fun to do. But so often they are unimportant!

An important task on the other hand is a little more tricky to decide. How do you know if something is important? Again, from Covey:

Importance, on the other hand, has to do with results. If something is important, it contributes to your mission, your values, your high priority goals.

I love this definition because importance is all about you. Don't think of this as ego or arrogance. Defining a task as important is all about knowing your mission is, what your values are, what your high priority goals are.

Efficiently doing things that don't matter

I'm convinced that time management starts here: understanding what is important. After all, what's the point of spending time and energy on things that just don't matter? If you say that you have a time management system, but it isn't based on your goals, values, or a purpose, then what you have is a collection of tips and tricks which help you efficiently do things that just don't matter.

Don't fall into this trap! You have to spend some time thinking about goals, values, purpose. This defines your "why you do things" and will be your guidepost when making decisions on what to do (or when to do) a task in front of you. Protip: Write down your goals/values/purpose!

The four quadrants

Here are descriptions of the four quadrants in the Eisenhower Martrix. The illustration above has generic examples, below are the definitions:

  • Q1 - Necessity. This is where a task is both important and you have to do it now. At the top of a list is an emergency. Think about the last emergency that you dealt. You dropped everything that you were doing to deal with it. Why? It was important: The person in the emergency was important to you or the project was important to the company). And there was no time to wait: You had to handle the issue now!
  • Q2 - Extraordinary Productivity. This is where you want to spend the most time. Your best work comes from here when you aren't distracted by the tyranny of the urgent. How do you maximize your time here? Two ways: First, get out of the habit to reacting to urgency. Eliminate distractions (Q3) in your life and find ways to manage your important tasks before they become urgent and therefore emergencies (Q1). Second, get rid of the waste (Q4). If you're doing activities that just aren't important and they do need to be done, then look here to get back some of your time.
  • Q3 - Distraction. Do you pick up your phone when it buzzes? Do you still have email notifications as soon as a message arrives and you have to open it? Do you allow co-workers to interrupt whenever it suits them? These tasks are urgent because you have to deal with it immediately. But remember: These things are often unimportant.
  • Q4 - Waste. These are unimportant and no urgent. Examples are listed above. Look to eliminate these out of your life.

Effective people

I'll end this post by saying that effective people stay out of Q3 and Q4 because, regardless of the urgency, the tasks in these boxes just aren't important. They don't align to your goals/values/purpose. Effective people also try to find ways to shrink the Q1 box. You'll never get away from emergencies and crises; life happens and important tasks sometimes also become urgent tasks. Having a time management system in place will help in shrinking that Q1 box and eliminating (as much as you can) those Q3 and Q4 things to make you as effective as you want in your life.

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