Creating a to-do list is one of the great tools of productivity. To-do lists help to capture all of the tasks we need to get done in one place.
However, just writing a list of things to do is just step one in a long list strategies to effectively managing your tasks.
The second part to creating a good to-do list is to prioritize all of the tasks on the list. This is often the hardest part of managing a to-do list effectively – determining which tasks to do first.
There are a lot of strategies you can deploy to prioritize your task list:
The world-famous Eisenhower Matrix, which is also known as the Priority Matrix or Urgent-Important-Matrix is a simple, yet powerful tool for strategic management. We have created 2 versions of the prioritization matrix template which can be used across a variety of use-cases. Get started with the Priority Matrix template.
The one I find the most useful is the Eisenhower Matrix, also known as the Prioritize Matrix.
This article will delve deep into the Eisenhower Matrix. The topics covered are below:
There are two “creators” of The Eisenhower Matrix. It started with a philosophy followed by Dwight D. Eisenhower. Stephen Covey took that philosophy and turned it into a time management strategy.
According to Britannica, Dwight D. Eisenhower was the 34th president of the United States. He gained his notoriety from his military leadership during World War II. He planned the Normandy Invasion and conducted the war in western Europe until the German surrender.
In an address to the Second Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Evanston, Illinois, he was quoted as saying:
“Of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”
Stephen Covey took this philosophy and created the actual matrix you see today.
In his book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, Stephen Covey outlines The Eisenhower Matrix as a way in which professional can solve problems.
The Eisenhower Matrix is discussed with Habit 3: Put the First Things First.
“Putting first things first means organizing and executing around your most important priorities. It is living and being driven by the principles you value most, not by the agendas and forces surrounding you.” – Stephen R. Covey
By taking time to plan your week, you are able to appropriately, you are able to minimize emergencies, and increase the time spent being effective.
The Eisenhower Matrix is very simple to use and only takes a few minutes. But if you put the effort into organizing your task list into the four quadrants, you will ensure you are working on the most important work.
In order to use The Eisenhower Matrix, you need to start with a brain dump. What are all of the things you need to get done. This could be done monthly, weekly, or daily.
Once you have your task list, start to analyze each task you have listed and place each task into the appropriate box in the matrix. There are the four boxes.
Be sure not to include more than 7 or 8 tasks in each quadrant.
Although it may seem easy to tell between urgent/non-urgent and important/non-important tasks, it becomes a lot more complicated once your staring at your task list. Here is how Steven Covey breaks it down in his book:
Urgent matters are those that require immediate action. These are the visible issues that pop up and demand your attention now. Often, urgent matters come with clear consequences for not completing these tasks. Urgent tasks are unavoidable, but spending too much time putting out fires can produce a great deal of stress and could result in burnout.
Important matters, on the other hand, are those that contribute to long-term goals and life values. These items require planning and thoughtful action. When you focus on important matters you manage your time, energy, and attention rather than mindlessly expending these resources. What is important is subjective and depends on your own values and personal goals. No one else can define what is important for you.
Now, lets delve a little deeper into each quadrant.
The tasks in quadrant 1 are both important AND urgent. They require that you take action quickly. In general, these tasks crises, problems, or impending deadlines and there are consequences for not completing these tasks.
These tend to be items that have come to you from your boss or coworkers or things that you have procrastinated on . No matter where they came from or how they got to you, they require your attention immediately.
Regardless of how much you plan ahead, quadrant 1 tasks are inevitable. There will always be times when something pops up that is completely out of your control.
What is important is not that you avoid these at all costs, but that you manage them appropriately. You want to be sure you aren’t always living in the “DO” quadrant at the detriment of you long-term goals.
Steven Covey cautions “living” in quadrant 1 tasks. They can quickly lead to increase stress burn out and a general sense that your days are out of your control.
When you spend all day, everyday putting out fires, you quickly lose passion and energy for your work. You can easily find yourself drifting to the mindless activities often found in quadrant 4.
Be aware of these tasks and categorize them properly to ensure you have the required time and energy to complete them.
The tasks in quadrant 2 are important, but not urgent. Because they are not urgent, the work can be planned and scheduled at a future time.
These are activities that may include project work, work towards long-term goals or personal and professional development.
According to Steven Covey, this is where you should spend most of your time. He states that these are the activities that provide us lasting happiness, fulfillment, and success.
Because of the lack of “urgency” around these tasks, it can be really easy to put these tasks off. However, the longer you wait on these types of tasks, the more they either turn into quadrant 1 tasks or never come to fruition. Especially when you are talking about personal and professional development activities.
As you become more adept at utilizing the matrix, you will be able to appropriately plan your work, thus reducing the number of items that pop up into Quadrant 1.
The tasks in quadrant 3 are urgent, but not important. These are tasks that you could do yourself, however someone else may be a better fit for the task.
Brett and Kate McKay refers to Quadrant 3 tasks as generally interruptions from others asking for you to help them achieve their goals fulfill their priorities.
Steven Covey says that many people spend a lot of their time on quadrant 3 tasks mistaking them for quadrant 1 tasks. While quadrant 3 tasks are urgent and important to someone, they are not important to your goals.
While it is OK to help others with their quadrant 3 tasks, you need to be sure to balance them appropriately with your quadrant 1 and quadrant 2 tasks. And delegation is not a bad thing. In fact, there are several reasons to delegate:
Don’t be afraid to delegate tasks, especially if they are coming from a coworker or even your boss. It’s OK to say no.
The tasks in quadrant 4 are not urgent and not important. These are time-wasting activities. They aren’t pressing and they don’t move you towards achieving your goals.
Examples of these types of tasks are watching TV, scrolling through social media, mindlessly surfing the web, etc.
Although these tasks are in the “eliminate” quadrant, I think there is a time and place for them. They just need to be intentional.
If you spend 30 – 60 minutes a day on these activities to decompress, there is no problem with that. You just want to be conscious about how much time you are spending on these activities.
As you get more comfortable with The Eisenhower Matrix, there are two time-management strategies you can deploy that work well in conjunction.
Plan the day before: The best way to ensure you are maximizing the time spent in Quadrant 2 tasks and minimizing the time spent in Quadrant 4 tasks is to plan your day the day before. Simply spend 10 minutes before you leave work analyzing your task list and placing the tasks in open time slots.
Eat the frog: Eating the frog simply means tackling your biggest, most important task first. This is where you Quadrant 2 task need to go. That way, as Quadrant 1 tasks emerge throughout the day, you’ve at least accomplished that one big task that is moving you forward.
Try adding these to your routine once you’re comfortable with how to effectively use The Eisenhower Matrix.
The benefits of using The Eisenhower Matrix are plenty. But here are just a handful.
Increased productivity: Productivity isn’t about being busy or completing tasks. The point of productivity is doing the right tasks at the right time. Using The Eisenhower Matrix helps you to ensure you are focusing on the right activities.
Clarity of your habits: Once you’ve been using the matrix for a while, you can start to realize a pattern of your own behavior. You can modify your behaviors to ensure you are spending more time on Quadrant 1 and Quadrant 2 tasks.
Work-life balance: Of course, the more effective you are at work, the less time you have to spend there. If you can minimize the fires and spend more time on Quadrant 2 tasks, you are able to get the important work done and get home to your family.
Improved planning: As you get comfortable with using the matrix, you’ll find yourself spending more and more time on Quadrant 2 activities which, in turn, improve your ability to plan out your work.
Try taking a few minutes each day and analyzing your task list. Are there things on there that you can delegate or eliminate? Are you truly focusing on the right tasks? It’s amazing how much more productive you can be with a little planning and forethought.
The Eisenhower Matrix prioritization tool helps people decide what to work. It does this assessing the urgency and importance of their tasks. Tasks identified as important and urgent are done first. Important but non-urgent tasks are done later. Urgent & unimportant tasks are delegated and non-urgent and unimportant tasks are eliminated.Summary by The World of Work Project
The Eisenhower Matrix Prioritization Tool helps people improve their personal effectiveness. You can learn more about personal effectiveness more broadly it in our podcast on the topic:
This tool is a four-box, 2×2 matrix model that to help with the prioritization of tasks.
To use it, individuals consider the importance of a task on the vertical axis and the urgency of a task on the horizontal axis. You should do tasks that are both urgent and important first. And you should schedule tasks that are important but not urgent for a later time. As for your tasks which are urgent but unimportant, you should delegated them as much as possible. Finally, you should eliminate (not do at all) those tasks which are neither urgent nor important.
The Eisenhower Matrix Prioritization Tool is a useful way of thinking about things, and a useful tool for certain people.
Task focused people often benefit from reviewing their to-do list first thing in the morning to decide what to work on. If you’re the type of person who does this, you might benefit from using the Eisenhower Matrix as it provides a structure for the prioritization activity, and results in a clear plan of action for the day ahead.
In practice, there are some challenges with the model when you’re managing not just yourself, but a range of stakeholders. Specifically, challenges often arise around importance.
Things that are important for one person in the world of work may not be important for another. Something your customer wants may appear more “important” than something your supplier wants.But prioritizing between these two stakeholders is a judgement call. Making these judgement calls sometimes creates a division between what is good for the overall organization, and what is good for the individual making the decision.
Despite this challenge, this is a good tool that’s worth experimenting. If you try it, you might find it’s helpful for you.
You can listen to any of our podcast episodes on your favorite podcast player via podlink.
This post on The Eisenhower Matrix Prioritization Tool is based on original work attributed to former American president Dwight D. Eisenhower, but we have no specific academic references for further reading.
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Carrier, J. (2019). The Eisenhower Matrix Prioritization Tool: A Simple Summary. Retrieved [insert date] from The World of Work Project: https://worldofwork.io/2019/08/eisenhower-matrix-prioritization-tool/