The Eisenhower matrix is a technique to prioritize tasks such that you balance between what’s important for your long term goals and what needs to be done right now.
William starts his day with a plan to operate at his productive best. High on hope, he intends to exercise, take the first step to start a side hustle, and read a few pages of a book.
The plan goes well until he begins work. Soon after, he receives phone calls, urgent jobs come up, coworkers walk up to him asking for help. As his day comes towards a close, he realizes that he is short on time to complete the tasks as per his original plan. Therefore, he postpones his plans for the next day, but the same cycle repeats.
Does William’s story sound like yours too? Do you plan to work on your long term goals, but fail to?
If so, the Eisenhower matrix can come to your rescue.
- What is the Eisenhow matrix?
- Why do you need the Eisenhower matrix?
- The 4 quadrants of the Eisenhower matrix
- How to handle each quadrant
What is the Eisenhow matrix?
The Eisenhower matrix is a time management technique to organize all your tasks and take action. By dividing your tasks into 4 quadrants as shown below, you can simplify the decisions you have to make.
- Quadrant 1 – Urgent and important – Tasks you must work on immediately
- Quadrant 2 – Not urgent but important – Tasks you must schedule time for
- Quadrant 3 – Urgent but not important – Tasks you must delegate, outsource, automate
- Quadrant 4 – Not urgent and not important – Tasks you must reduce or eliminate
The technique was first designed by Dwight Eisenhower, the 34th president of the United States. Stephen Covey helped it reach a larger audience by publicizing the concept in his best selling book, the 7 habits of highly effective people. The Eisenhower technique also goes by the name of the urgent important matrix because Covey used that term in the book.
Why do you need the Eisenhower matrix?
Before we go deeper into the details of each quadrant, let’s take a look at the usual flow of events in the life of a common man. Understanding the loopholes in your daily schedules and routines will help you realize why you need to start using the Eisenhower matrix.
On a normal day, if you do not take control of your decisions, different tasks and chores will derail any plans you have. Before you realize it, you’ll be running on autopilot where your routine drives your actions.
Like William, you begin with a top-notch plan to knock things off the park. But as you proceed with your day, various distractions and interferences consume your time and attention. You find yourself forced to work on what’s important right now instead of focusing on what’s important for your long term goals.
As hours go by, you digest the fact that you no longer have the time to accomplish whatever you set out to in the morning. So, you make a plan to start afresh the next day, come what may. Even if you find some spare time later in the day, you morally license yourself to postpone the task because you’ve decided to start a new life the next day. But tomorrow turns out no different than today was and the plan to achieve your long-term goals becomes a neverending cycle of procrastination.
The Eisenhower matrix helps you keep your eye on your long term goals without compromising on what’s important at the moment.
The 4 quadrants of the Eisenhower matrix
1. Quadrant 1:
The tasks in the first quadrant are both urgent and important. Failure to complete the task leads to consequences. Therefore, you have no choice but to act on such tasks immediately.
Here are a few examples of tasks that fall under quadrant 1:
- Completing a report for the upcoming meeting
- Finishing a crucial project before the deadline
- Taking care of your kid who fell and hurt his knee badly
- Attending a crying infant
The characteristics of tasks in the first quadrant are as follows:
- Urgent and important
- Leaving incomplete leads to consequences
- Needs action now
2. Quadrant 2:
The tasks in the second quadrant are important, but not urgent. Tasks related to long-term goals, growth opportunities, and personal development fall right into this area. The tricky part, however, is that since such tasks are not urgent, they take a backseat. They do not have any deadline and you have the liberty to decide when to start and finish them.
Working on your tasks in quadrant 2 has all the long term benefits. Yet, you procrastinate them thinking you’ll start in the future and settle in the comfort zone in the present.
Interestingly, this is the most crucial quadrant and also the most ignored.
Here are a few examples of tasks that fall under quadrant 2:
- Saving money for the future
- Working on improving your professional/soft skills
- Exercising to maintain good health
The characteristics of tasks in the second quadrant are as follows:
- Important, but not urgent
- Not doing it now doesn’t have any immediate consequences
- Do not have deadlines
- Long term benefits
3. Quadrant 3:
The tasks in the third quadrant are urgent, but not important. Though these require your attention at the moment, attending to them yield no significant benefit. They do not always require your skills or presence as such, but rather anyone can get them done. You spend time on such tasks due to the force of habit or because you’re uncomfortable saying no.
Here are a few examples of tasks that fall under quadrant 3:
- A text message from a friend
- A coworker asking for help to complete his project
- Recurring meetings that lack a purpose
- Grocery shopping
The characteristics of tasks in the third quadrant are as follows:
- Urgent, but not important
- Time-consuming and busy work
- Doesn’t require your skills
4. Quadrant 4:
The tasks in the fourth quadrant are neither urgent nor important.
These activities distract you from the tasks that matter, waste your time without adding any value. You prefer indulging in them because they allow you to relax, procrastinate and settle in the comfort zone. When you spend a large amount of time in this quadrant, you relish the instant gratification and regret your decision later.
Here are a few examples of tasks that fall under quadrant 4:
- Watching Netflix/Youtube for long hours
- Scroll through your Instagram newsfeed
- Eating junk food
The characteristics of tasks in the fourth quadrant are as follows:
- Not urgent, not important
- Waste of time
- Triggered due to laziness and procrastination
- Leads to regret
How to handle each quadrant
Depending on your circumstances, personality and behavior, you will find yourself spending more time on one quadrant than another. That’s normal. Here are some pointers to handle each quadrant effectively.
Spending time in quadrant 1 is inevitable, but if you’re spending all or most of your time here, you’ll be more busy than successful. The common reasons why people spend excessive time in quadrant 1 are:
- Approaching each task as it comes without applying any thought
- Working on any available task at the moment
- Not making an effort to improve current routine
- Micromanagement(as a leader)
If you find yourself spending a large amount of your time in this quadrant, ask yourself if the tasks are urgent, or if you’re assuming so? For example, if you have the habit of checking every email as soon as a notification pops up, you’ve established urgency for each and every email. Is that necessary? Not at all.
To reduce time spent in Q1, you can:
Implement the Pomodoro technique:
The Pomodoro technique is a time management methodology where you work for 25 minutes followed by a short 3-5 minute break. After repeating the same cycle 4 times, you take a longer break.
Working in such short cycles prevents you from spending excessive time on one task.
Understand the Parkinson’s Law:
Parkinson’s Law states that the more time you have, the longer you will take to complete the task. The awareness of how your mind approaches a task based on the time available can help you avoid spending more time than necessary on any job.
Evaluate if your workload is abnormal
If you’re forever occupied with urgent tasks, assess if you’ve taken up more than you can handle. Find ways to cut short, offload and delegate some of your responsibilities.
Reflect, anticipate, force:
If you’re drowning in urgent tasks, you will need to reflect, anticipate and plan to make things better for you and your schedule. If you expect the future to change by itself, you’ll be waiting forever.
Take the time to think of ideas to reduce your urgent tasks. Yes, given that you’re busy all the time, finding that window to think will be a challenge in itself. But, until you find a way to free up time to think and plan, you’ll find yourself entangled in the same routine.
The more time you spend on Quadrant 2, the better your long term results will be. Unfortunately, in-spite of the clear long-term benefits, people give the least priority to the tasks under this section.
Postponing these tasks causes no immediate consequences, therefore you tend to make the classic mistake of assuming, “I know I should do this, but I don’t have time now. I will start in the future.” But that “future” never arrives. As a result, the tasks related to your personal/professional development and the goals which resonate with your heart get procrastinated infinitely. Delaying tasks in quadrant 2 leads to unfulfilled dreams and a lifetime of regret.
If you’re spending less than 2 hours a day on Quadrant 2, you need to force yourself to make time for it. Unless you schedule time for your long term growth, urgent adhoc responsibilities will eat up all your time. If you have trouble dedicating time, use the time blocking method to schedule a few hours for the tasks which matter to your long-term goals.
The tasks in this quadrant keep you busy but aren’t meaningful to your long term goals. Often, such tasks help others achieve their goals at the cost of your time.
The most common reasons for spending a lot of time in Q3 are:
- Reluctance to say no
- Hesitance to delegate due to fear of compromised quality
- Respect for authority – “I know this task is useless, but my boss asked me to do it”
If you spend a lot of time on Q3, you need to stand up for yourself.
1. Set a limit:
If you’re naturally inclined as a person to help others, set a limit on how much time will you spend on such tasks. Once you hit that threshold, you can switch focus to the tasks that matter to you.
2. Say no:
More often than not, people who spend a significant time on Q3 have trouble saying no. They agree to help a friend, assist a coworker, and finish the project the boss asked for no matter how busy they are.
If you’re in the same boat, you must cultivate a habit of saying no. Though you’ll feel uncomfortable at first, you’ll appreciate the peace of mind which comes after. Occasionally, you’ll face consequences by saying no, but such reactions come from people who are looking to leech you anyway. You’ve more to gain if they leave you alone.
3. Check for options to delegate/outsource:
Since you only have 24 hours a day, you cannot pick up every task thrown at you and finish them yourself. Check if you can delegate or outsource some of the routine tasks even if it involves a cost.
Trust other people to do the job, if not you’ll have to work on everything yourself. After a point such an approach will cease to work thereby crippling your potential for growth.
For certain jobs, you will have to spend time training another person before he/she learns how to perform it effectively. Though time-consuming upfront, your extra effort will pay off in the long run.
If you’re pulled into too many people’s business and have no easy way to break free, say no, delegate or outsource, talk to a person in authority. Ask for more resources to handle everything on your plate. Convey the message that you no longer have the time to deliver all the expectations on your shoulder. Make a list of all the projects you’re working on and ask your superior’s opinion on where should your priorities be.
Quadrant 4 is where the comfort zone has made its home. You like to watch TV, use your phone, or eat a bag of chips because activities in quadrant 4 are the easiest way to procrastinate real work. Besides, indulging in them provides immediate pleasure too.
The lesser time you spend here, the more productive you’ll be. That said, you don’t have to eliminate all these activities altogether. You can watch TV to relax or eat junk food once in a while. As far as you spend time in Q4 in moderation, you’ll do well. But do not let relaxation be an excuse for incessant procrastination.
If you’re spending most of your time on Q4, here are a few pointers that might help:
- Check if you’re clear on your long term goals and if you’re chasing the goals that matter to you
- If you have trouble motivating yourself, try to identify the reason behind it
- If you have no clue what you’re spending time on, perform this time tracking activity to make yourself aware of where you’re leaking time.
The Eisenhower matrix is based on a simple concept. Once you understand the segregation of tasks, you will determine the right quadrant for any task with ease. Neither will you need an excel sheet nor a sheet of paper to divide your tasks into quadrants.
Every single day, keep forcing yourself to:
- Steer clear of quadrant 4
- Remain in quadrant 1 and 3 only as long as necessary
- Spend the most amount of time in quadrant 2
Over time, the cycle will turn into your routine, and achieving your goals will turn into a habit.
Maxim Dsouza has spent over a decade experimenting and finding various time management techniques to improve his productivity. He strongly understands the fact that time is a limited commodity and tries to make every second count. He has extensive experience in leadership in startups, small businesses, and large corporations.
He has helped people of different professions and age groups gain clarity on their goals, improve focus, revise their time management skills and develop an awareness of their psychological cognitive biases.