Don’t Discard the Eisenhower Matrix Just Yet. It’s Old but Useful.

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To achieve our goals, we need to work towards them. But how do we decide which tasks to pick and which to neglect? Dwight D. Eisenhower had an idea how to solve this problem.

Nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you are thinking about it. Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

Saying that Eisenhower was a high achiever would be no overstatement. Having been the first Supreme Commander of NATO, president of Columbia University and a five-star general in the United States Army seems to be a wee bit overshadowed by his tenure as the 34th president of the United States.

And only at his job in the White House he was involved in creating the Interstate Highway System, NASA, and the internet. To say the least, his to-do list was well-stocked, and he managed his workload with flying colors for decades. Additionally, just as if that wasn’t already challenging him enough, he played golf and bridge, enjoyed fishing, and was an avid oil painter.

Among his most famous quotes is this one (which he attributed to a former college president):

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

And that leads us to an essential time management problem: the need to set priorities. If we can’t tell important from negligible tasks, pressing from non-urgent, chances are we’ll focus on the wrong things and at least delay reaching our goals. This problem, however, can be solved or at least curtailed by adhering to the Eisenhower Matrix.

What is the Eisenhower Matrix?

The Eisenhower matrix (or Eisenhower principle) is a simple matrix of four distinct quadrants, each of which is a binder for your tasks. Depending on whether a task is urgent or not, important or not, you put it in the appropriate quadrant and deal with it accordingly.

Eisenhower Matrix

Not all quadrants are created equal, though. Only on the tasks in the two quadrants at the top, you should act upon yourself. The tasks in the right one will bring you nearer to your goals, while the ones on the left side simply have to get done. Less critical are those tasks that you can delegate and of not interest, of course, are those that you can eliminate.

The matrix is not a spreadsheet that you need to fill out every day. Instead, it serves as a rough guideline. Tagging your (digital) tasks accordingly can undoubtedly help not to lose track, but this is optional.

A closer look at the quadrants

It’s not hard to understand the Eisenhower Matrix. However, deciding which tasks belong where is crucial and not always as easy as it seems. Let’s take a closer look at what the particular quadrants are about.

1. Eliminate

You should eliminate every task that is neither important nor urgent right away. At least in theory.

The typical examples of such kinds of tasks would be watching Netflix, checking social media, or lying on the sofa. However, we usually don’t consider these things as tasks. And sometimes they’re even crucial to our job because we might work as a film critic, social media manager, or professional sofa connoisseur (who, obviously, recommends various kinds of sofas to guests depending on their current needs).

This quadrant is not only the least important in terms of relevance for achieving your goals but also the least important of the entire system. You’ll rarely end up putting tasks here, yet it is crucial always to remind yourself that this quadrant exists; that tasks can be neither urgent nor important even though they are written on your to-do list.

2. Delegate

A little above the trash can resides the quadrant of delegation. The tasks you put here are urgent – but not important, which is why you don’t have to end up doing them yourself.

It’s essential that you don’t necessarily understand "important" in this context as "important to achieve your goals," but rather as "important that you do it yourself."

Tasks can feasibly be important in regards to a project, but don’t have to be done by yourself. For example, if you’re going to spearhead a client presentation, you’ll also need to make sure that the room is available and that the equipment works. These are necessary tasks, as there won’t be any presentation at all unless the place is free and the technology is functioning as it should. Still, these are tasks you can happily delegate to a trusted assistant.

3. Do

This is the simplest quadrants of all: Things that are urgent and important need to be done by yourself and immediately.

However, this is an excellent time to talk about importance and urgency in general; otherwise, you’ll end up putting down fires everywhere without coming any closer to your goals. Be picky when it comes to choosing the tasks that belong here. There are tons of tasks that seem important and urgent, but they rarely are. You often can reschedule many vital tasks without hurting anyone, and many pressing tasks aren’t as important as their urgency might suggest.

If you are in no danger of losing a client or your job because you didn’t do a specific task by the end of the day, it probably doesn’t belong here.

4. Schedule

The by far most crucial quadrant is the one on the upper right. These are the tasks that help you achieve your goals, that push you further than anything in the other quadrants. But these are also the tasks that get postponed again and again because they’re just not that urgent. Because they don’t have to be done today.

That’s why it’s so important to be picky about the "Do" quadrant. If your day is full of tasks that are important and urgent, you won’t get to the things that make a difference mid or long term.

Think about writing a book. That might have a considerable impact on your career and your status. Yet, researching, structuring, and writing it never seems to become urgent. If you don’t have a publisher yet, the tasks related to this project will forever remain in this quadrant and only get done if you intentionally make the time.

This quadrant isn’t called "Schedule" for no reason. Even if the tasks here are not pressing, you must schedule them – to be done today, tomorrow, or at another time in the near future. Don’t procrastinate on this, and beware of postponing these tasks over and over again.

If you consider your life to be a marathon, the tasks here are the actual running. Everything else is just filling out the participation slip and tying your shoes. Don’t postpone the running, or you won’t get any step further.

You’ve got to know what you’re walking towards

Even though the Eisenhower Matrix is simple, that doesn’t mean it won’t be useful. However, if you are not clear about your goals, this technique will probably misfire. Tasks will end up in the wrong quadrants, and your focus will be lost.

Or to put it in Seneca’s words: "If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable."