How to drive productivity with the Eisenhower decision matrix

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What can the 34th President of the United States tell you that will help you get on top of that never ending to-do list?

You’d be forgiven for thinking the best plan is just to switch your phone to silent and roll your sleeves up – but in actual fact, Dwight Eisenhower had another plan, one that involved a simple but extremely effective prioritisation system.

The ‘Eisenhower Matrix’ (or ‘Urgent-Important’ matrix as it’s sometimes known) is exactly that.

Oh, and if you think you’re busy, don’t worry – aside from being a 5-star WWII general and Supreme Commander of NATO Allied Forces in Europe, Eisenhower was also a 2 term US President and President of a prestigious US university; although none of this stopped him enjoying daily golf sessions and producing over 200 oil paintings. It’s safe to say your time is in good hands.

What is the Eisenhower matrix?

In essence, the Eisenhower Matrix is one large square divided equally into 4 more squares, or quadrants. These quadrants are then labelled, left to right, top to bottom as follows:

  1. Do
  2. Plan
  3. Delegate
  4. Eliminate

Eisenhower matrix

As you can see, the upper quadrants are labelled ‘important’ and the lower ones ‘not important’ – with the left hand quadrants labelled ‘urgent’ and the right most labelled ‘not urgent’.

Now, the next step in turbo-charging your productivity in a presidential manner comes with quickly categorising the tasks on your to-do list…

Categorising your tasks using the Eisenhower matrix

There’s no prescriptive way of categorising tasks on your to-do list, the same task that’s important for you might be irrelevant to someone else, so you have to come at the matrix from your point of view.

You can start by approaching your list with one question:

Is this task urgent?

Your answer decides whether the task goes into the ‘urgent’ or ‘not urgent’ column. Next question:

Is this task important?

This next answer decides whether the task goes into the ‘important’ or ‘not important’ row. When you’ve decided, your tasks has now landed in one of the quadrants, and can be treated as follows…

The different quadrants of the Eisenhower matrix

  1. Do

This is the most pressing of the quadrants – as both ‘urgent’ and ‘important’ combine to advise that you ‘do it first’!

Don’t forget, these are subjective – so doing the ironing might not usually appear in this quadrant – but if you don’t have any ironed shirts before a big interview, then ironing suddenly becomes an urgent-important task.

A good way to consider if your tasks belongs in this quadrant is to ask yourself what the impact or knock-on impact would be if it’s not done. If it’s immediately critical to life, family, career or health then its place in the ‘do’ quadrant is probably well justified.

Oh – and if you hadn’t already assumed, these tasks need to be done as soon as is physically possible, prioritised over everything else on the list.

  1. Plan

If your task is important but not immediately urgent, the this second quadrant – ‘plan’ – is the perfect home for it.

A lot of life’s tasks are important but don’t need to be done immediately as a priority. Eating, exercising, spending time with loved ones – and a lot of professional tasks fall into this area too – the marketing plan for next financial year, putting together a brief for a client you’ll meet next month, and so forth.

Hence, planning when to do them should be your next step. Look at the diary, work out when they can be done around other commitments and fit them in. Depending on how your manage your diary, these will either be done when the time comes around – or they’ll end up being pushed back until they are bumped forward into the ‘urgent-important’ box.

  1. Delegate

Tasks that are ‘urgent’ but ‘not important’ can be a real drain on your time – and, if we can assume that virtually everyone owns a mobile phone now, your pocket sized companion is the perfect example of this:

You’re working on an important task and the phone rings – something that’s very difficult to ignore.

On the other end of the phone, a colleague, a friend, a telemarketing company… all of which are going to take you further away from completing that ‘urgent-important’ task.

So what do you do? The answer, as far as is possible, is to delegate the task.

Now, President Eisenhower probably wasn’t short of people who would answer the White House phone for him, but you don’t have to have staff to take advantage of delegation. Could you set your voicemail? Could you have your mobile calls rooted to a colleagues phone while you’re hard at work? Could you set up a rule for incoming emails?

Delegating to systems is sometimes just as useful as having someone who’ll pick up the work on your behalf.

  1. Eliminate

If a task is ‘not important’ and ‘not urgent’ then it probably doesn’t have a place in your day.

Be careful though, because there are some leisure activities that might not seem important, but are actually a vital part of a work-life balance.

So, reading the news might give you needed 5 minute break away from your job – but if you find yourself mindlessly sucked into reading every news story you can find out of nothing more than habit then this is very much ‘not important’ and ‘not urgent’ – and needs eliminating, as it does nothing more than eat up your precious time.

How do your days and weeks play out?

You’ve probably got a rough idea of how a day looks at the moment in terms of what can wait, what can’t, what’s ultra-pressing, what isn’t… etc.

However, our brains aren’t really great at being objective, which is why, to get a really good understanding of how the Eisenhower matrix can help you, you need to start recording everything you do.

Grab some post-its. Now, every time you change task, note down what you’re doing. At the end of the day, look back at these things with less ‘in the moment’ eyes – and ask yourself:

Was this important?

Was this urgent?

Then stick it on a printed out or drawn version of the matrix accordingly.

When you’ve got an idea of what your day entails, you can start adjusting accordingly. Finding a lot of ‘not important’ and ‘not urgent’ tasks? Great, your new found awareness means you’ve just freed up a bundle of time. Putting ‘important’ but ‘not urgent’ tasks before things that should be getting done immediately? Well now you can adjust.

Awareness is absolutely everything when it comes to productivity. When you understand what your behaviour looks like in a day, you can adjust it so that to-do list is worked through in the most effective way possible.