By: Ben Richardson Last updated: April 5th, 2022
News & tips
Have you had the feeling that there is more on your to do list than you can accomplish in a day, a week or even a month?
This article looks at the Eisenhower matrix, a very popular time management strategy.
We’ll see what it is, how it works in practice, and look at the pros and cons of using it.
Steven Covey popularised this time management system in his best-selling book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
In it, he discusses how President Eisenhower, who was famously organised and productive, managed his office to focus his time on essential activities.
He delegated everything he felt wasn’t important, whether it was urgent or not.
He suggested that everyone would benefit from taking this same approach and focusing exclusively on important tasks.
The Eisenhower matrix is a 2 x 2 matrix that you use to categorise all of your outstanding tasks.
You rate each task on your to-do list as important or not important, and as urgent or not urgent.
This rating determines which box in the matrix each task should be in. That then tells you how to handle it.
Tasks in this quadrant are your first priority.
You should tackle them before anything else, similar to using a Pareto analysis.
Tasks in this quadrant are second priority.
Once you have completed the tasks in quadrant one, you should move on to these tasks.
This quadrant is not a priority.
Despite being urgent, these tasks aren’t significant enough to spend your time on.
You should delegate them.
You need to be confident that they will get done but make sure that you do not spend a material amount of time on them.
This quadrant contains tasks to ignore.
You will always have better ways to spend your time than on these tasks.
At the very least, you should ignore them until they become urgent.
The Eisenhower matrix works because it forces you to differentiate between unimportant but urgent tasks and important but non-urgent tasks.
People find it difficult and very uncomfortable to ignore or postpone urgent tasks.
Consequently, they spend far more time than appropriate on unimportant but urgent tasks, to the detriment of more strategic, higher-value tasks.
The matrix forces you to be clear about how much time you are spending on these unimportant tasks and increases the amount of time you allocate to important tasks.
The process needs repeating periodically, perhaps twice per week, as your list of tasks and their priority changes.
There are three key reasons to use the Eisenhower matrix:
The Eisenhower matrix has demonstrated its effectiveness over decades and in every job and environment.
If you apply it, you can be confident that you see substantial benefits.
The process of using the matrix is straightforward.
It does not require a substantial investment of time, unlike some other systems.
Experienced practitioners categorise tasks automatically as they come in and do not need to sit down and work through their to-do list.
You can not categorise your tasks between important and unimportant tasks if you are not clear on your priorities.
Going through this process will give you clarity on your goals.
The Eisenhower Matrix is a brilliant time management tool.
It’s not perfect though, so let’s look at some issues with it.
The Eisenhower matrix is overly simplistic.
It does not account for task complexity or the resources required to complete a task.
It may be inappropriate to prioritise a task if it is highly complex and requires input from others until you have received the input you need.
In this case, your work will not generate an output for a long time.
It would be better to defer this task until you have received the required input.
In the meantime, spend time on tasks that will more quickly generate a return.
The Eisenhower matrix assumes your boss agrees with this approach.
Detail-oriented bosses may disagree with you ignoring or delegating minor tasks.
It will be challenging to implement this approach fully if your boss does not buy into it.
This approach is problematic if you do not have anyone to delegate urgent but unimportant tasks to.
It suggests that you ignore these tasks.
In theory, doing so would improve your productivity, but it may not be practical.
For example, emptying the bins is never going to be important versus other work tasks.
However, if you focus on more important tasks for two weeks, you’ll have an unpleasant problem on your hands which you won’t be able to ignore!
If you have no one to delegate to, you may need to use it less rigorously.
Despite the drawbacks mentioned above, the Eisenhower matrix is a robust framework for time management.
It is quick and simple to use. Everyone can benefit from using it.
The people that it works best for are:
It is at its strongest helping people who have many competing priorities to decide what to spend time on and what to delegate.
No one time management system works in all situations, which is why there are so many time management methods.
Many people combine the Eisenhower matrix with timeboxing or the Pomodoro technique.
The Eisenhower matrix is a great way to keep you focused on your most important tasks if you have a wide variety of responsibilities.
If that’s you, make sure to give it a try.