What is the Eisenhower Matrix?
Being unproductive is rarely anyone’s intent, least of all at work. But as the day goes on and you start fielding urgent requests as your task list starts to mount up, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain that commitment to productivity. Whether you’re missing key deadlines or struggling to stay on track with long-term projects, knowing how to prioritise tasks could be the difference between lagging behind and leading the pack. This is where the Eisenhower Matrix comes in.
Understanding the Eisenhower Matrix
The Eisenhower Matrix – also known as the Eisenhower Box or the Urgent/Important Matrix – is a simple framework for prioritising tasks and managing workload. It’s named after Dwight D. Eisenhower, a five-star general and the 34th president of the United States. Eisenhower was known for his incredible levels of productivity, so much so that his approach to goal-setting and time management has been comprehensively studied by a wide range of people, one of whom was Stephen Covey. In his book 'The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People', Covey repackaged Eisenhower’s ideas into a simple tool for task prioritisation: the Eisenhower Matrix.
So, what is the Eisenhower Matrix? Essentially, it’s a strategy that allows you to put into practice the following quote attributed to Eisenhower: "I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent". All you need to do is evaluate your tasks according to urgency and importance.
How does the Eisenhower Box work?
Businesses and individuals can use the Eisenhower Matrix to plan, delegate, prioritise and schedule daily or weekly tasks. By assigning tasks to one of the four quadrants below, you can determine how urgent they are and work out how to deal with them in an appropriate manner:
- First Quadrant: Urgent and important (tasks to complete immediately) – these are 'do first' tasks that are vital to deal with as soon as possible. They’re usually last-minute requests that arise due to unforeseen circumstances. Generally, tasks like this should be completed immediately or on the same day. Examples include covering a project for a sick colleague or dealing with an unforeseen emergency, such as a supply chain disruption.
- Second Quadrant: Important, but not urgent (tasks to schedule for later) – these are long-term goals/tasks that are important but don’t have a particularly firm deadline, so you can schedule them for completion later. Examples include gaining a professional qualification or planning for long-term business targets, such as budget reduction.
- Third Quadrant: Urgent, but not important (tasks to delegate to someone else) – these tasks need to be completed immediately, but they may not be important enough to require your attention, which means that they can be delegated to other members of your team. Examples include routine work or lengthy meetings/phone calls without a clear purpose.
- Fourth Quadrant: Neither urgent nor important (tasks to eliminate) – these tasks are a distraction and should be avoided if possible. In many cases, you can simply ignore or cancel these types of tasks. Examples include social activities or unnecessarily long tea/coffee breaks.
Put simply, using the Eisenhower Box can help you visualise your tasks within the context of importance and urgency. When you start thinking about your workload in these terms, it’s much easier to ensure that the most important tasks get prioritised and completed as quickly as possible.
How do you distinguish between urgency and importance?
There’s no universal formula to determine the distinction between urgency and importance when you’re creating a Priority Matrix, but it’s something that’s vital to consider. More often than not, the distinction between these two categories in the real world is decidedly more difficult to determine than it is when you’re producing an abstract Eisenhower Box. In a nutshell, urgent tasks are unavoidable and require immediate attention, whereas important tasks require more planning and contribute to long-term goals. For example, answering phone calls from a major client is urgent while keeping up with the latest research in your field is important.
What are the advantages of the Eisenhower Matrix?
One of the key advantages of Eisenhower’s Urgent/Important Matrix is how easy it is to implement. There’s no need to purchase a costly software package and you don’t need to spend a significant amount of time producing the matrix. More generally, the Priority Matrix enables you to improve your time management by setting clear and unambiguous priorities. This is especially useful for people in management or ownership positions, as well as freelancers who may need to juggle tasks from several different projects or clients at any one time.
What are the disadvantages of the Eisenhower Matrix?
There are a couple of disadvantages associated with the Prioritisation Matrix. Most significantly, it’s often difficult to determine the importance of a task accurately. This means that you may end up delegating a task to the wrong resource and experience a drop in quality. Furthermore, it’s important to remember that it may not always be possible to act immediately when you’re dealing with urgent activities. Lack of knowledge, lack of time, regulations and bureaucracy or multiple urgent/important tasks can make that impossible, rendering the Priority Matrix a little less effective when it comes to decision-making and time management.
How to use the Eisenhower Box to manage your tasks and workload
The Urgent/Important Matrix can be an excellent starting point for work and project management. After you’ve assigned your tasks to the appropriate quadrant, you can start setting up time management processes to help you deal with important activities in a timely fashion. For example, you could use Dropbox to manage your to-do list more effectively, build a timeline template. You can use these task management tools to assign urgent/non-important tasks to other members of your team, while you can also set due dates and reminders for important/non-urgent tasks that can be scheduled for a later date.
It may also be worth thinking about implementing workplace automation tools. Automation – where possible – is a great way to deal with tasks that need to be done, but don’t require very much planning or analysis before you jump in. Using automation tools or integrations in Dropbox productivity app, you can ‘delegate’ Q3 tasks (urgent, but not important) in a way that’s time-efficient for your business. You can assign tasks to team members in Dropbox Paper with deadlines, or port them directly into Trello cards for your team members from Dropbox files. Automatic content ingest tools can help you eliminate time-consuming, error-prone tasks that are likely to cause bottlenecks, ensuring that you and your team work more productively in the future.
Furthermore, you should consider combining the Eisenhower Box with other time management approaches for a better result. For example, Eat the Frog. Eat the Frog stems from a saying from Mark Twain, who stated, “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning”. In a business context, this means that you should tackle your biggest or most complex task first, before moving onto the smaller tasks that you can prioritise based on other factors, like deadlines. There’s also the ABCDE method, wherein you essentially take your tasks and assign them a letter value based on order of importance, before completing them in that order.
The Eisenhower Box can be an extremely effective tool for task and time management. By learning how to prioritise tasks effectively, you can improve your workplace efficiency, eliminate time-wasting activities, and build towards your long-term business goals.