Dwight Eisenhower lived one of the most productive lives you can imagine.
Eisenhower was the 34th President of the United States, serving two terms from 1953 to 1961. During his time in office, he launched programs that directly led to the development of the Interstate Highway System in the United States, the launch of the internet (DARPA), the exploration of space (NASA), and the peaceful use of alternative energy sources (Atomic Energy Act).
Before becoming president, Eisenhower was a five-star general in the United States Army, served as the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II, and was responsible for planning and executing invasions of North Africa, France, and Germany.
At other points along the way, he served as President of Columbia University, became the first Supreme Commander of NATO, and somehow found time to pursue hobbies like golfing and oil painting.
Eisenhower had an incredible ability to sustain his productivity not just for weeks or months, but for decades. And for that reason, it is no surprise that his methods for time management, task management, and productivity have been studied by many people.
His most famous productivity strategy is known as the Eisenhower Box (or Eisenhower Matrix) and it’s a simple decision-making tool that you can use right now. Let’s talk about how to be more productive and how Eisenhower’s strategy works.
The Eisenhower Matrix
Eisenhower’s strategy for taking action and organizing your tasks is simple. Using the decision matrix below, you will separate your actions based on four possibilities.
- Urgent and important (tasks you will do immediately).
- Important, but not urgent (tasks you will schedule to do later).
- Urgent, but not important (tasks you will delegate to someone else).
- Neither urgent nor important (tasks that you will eliminate).
The great thing about this matrix is that it can be used for broad productivity plans (“How should I spend my time each week?”) and for smaller, daily plans (“What should I do today?”).
Here is an example of what my Eisenhower Box looks like for today:
The first quadrant of the Eisenhower Matrix, Do, consists of your most important tasks. The activities which need to be done urgently. The tasks with a deadline approaching or the ones that cannot be delayed generally fall in this category.
For putting tasks in this category, you need to thoroughly analyze your priorities first and then decide if it fits with the do it now criteria. If the task needs to be done within a day, or no longer than the next day, it is an urgent task. Do.it.now!
Another way to put this in context is to keep in mind the famous ‘eat the frog first principle’ of Mark Twain, connotating that you should do your most urgent tasks for the day the first thing in the morning.
Let’s take a concrete work example here to make things easy for you. At the end of each week, you’re delegated with the responsibility of providing a comprehensive report to your manager. Now, your weekends on Friday. It’s Thursday morning already and you haven’t prepared the report. Does this classify as an urgent task? Absolutely!
The 2nd quadrant of the Eisenhower Matrix is Decide. It constitutes of the tasks which are important, but not necessarily urgent. This could include an array of responsibilities ranging from professional emails, follow-ups, to more personal appointments and commitments.
Tasks in this quadrant need to be scheduled for some other time. Generally, these tasks are in line with your long-term goals and contribute to your growth. A common everyday example could be to exercise. You know it’s crucial to good health, but you cannot dedicate time to it. So, you need to decide the time when you’re ready to hit it.
Schedule tasks in a way that they do not transfer to the ‘urgent’ category. Make sure you have enough time to execute them while they still fit in this division.
3rd quadrant of the Eisenhower Matrix is Delegate. This category refers to the tasks which are not important, but urgent. Although it sounds counter-intuitive because naturally, your first instinct would be that aren’t tasks which are urgent, important too? Not necessarily!
These activities generally give you the deception of being important, while in reality, they don’t really contribute much towards your productivity. You need to decide whether you need to reschedule it or if someone else can do it for you.
Some of the examples can include scheduling interviews, replying to certain emails, or team meetings that can be conducted by someone else, while you’re busy executing your quadrant 1 activities.
The last category of the Eisenhower Matrix is Eliminate. These consists of tasks that are essentially your productivity killers. They do not contribute at all towards your goals. Identify these activities and eliminate them to give your productivity a boost.
Common examples of these activities include mindless surfing on social media, constantly checking your phone for calls or messages, playing video games, or general activities that you use to procrastinate.
How to use the Eisenhower Matrix for Time Management
If by now you’re wondering your life will magically become organized by using this matrix, it’s not that easy! But by putting in a little bit of effort, you can get yourself on track.
First things first, you need to classify your urgent and important activities. For doing so, you need to set your priorities right and define urgency levels.
Your urgent tasks are usually the ones which have a time constraint attached to them. These activities have a ‘do it now’ written all over them and require your utmost attention.
On the other hand, your important tasks are generally long term and rather goal-oriented. Generally, they don’t give you immediate results and are more focused on making better long-term decisions.
After you’re done classifying your urgent and important tasks, the next few things you need to do to fully utilize the potential of Eisenhower matrix for time management are:
1. Give Color Codes to Quadrants
Assign color codes to your quadrants to quickly help you understand the gravity of the situation. By allocating colors, you can get a quick glance at what needs to be done next. These color codes also help you to prioritize your tasks to make informed decisions.
For example; the do quadrant can be colored red to indicate the urgency of tasks.
2. Categorize Your Professional and Personal To-dos
To avoid over-lapping commitments, make separate matrices for your professional and personal tasks. This will steer you clear for what lies ahead and will greatly influence how you manage your time. A trick here can be to dedicate distinct hours of the day for both kinds of commitments and see how that works for you.
3. Limit the Number of Items Per Quadrant
Adding too many items per quadrant will over-complicate things and the purpose of using the Eisenhower matrix for time management will be lost. To optimize it, limit the number of actions to 7 or 8. That way you won’t be overwhelmed with what you need to do.
The Difference Between Urgent and Important
What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.
Urgent tasks are things that you feel like you need to react to: emails, phone calls, texts, news stories. Meanwhile, in the words of Brett McKay, “Important tasks are things that contribute to our long-term mission, values, and goals.”
Separating these differences is simple enough to do once, but doing so continually can be tough. The reason I like the Eisenhower Matrix is that it provides a clear framework for making the decisions over and over again. And like anything in life, consistency is the hard part.
Here are some other observations I’ve made from using this method.
Elimination Before Optimization
A few years ago, I was reading about computer programming when I came across an interesting quote:
“There is no code faster than no code.”
In other words, the fastest way to get something done — whether it is having a computer read a line of code or crossing a task off your to-do list — is to eliminate that task entirely. There is no faster way to do something than not doing it at all. That’s not a reason to be lazy, but rather a suggestion to force yourself to make hard decisions and delete any task that does not lead you toward your mission, your values, and your goals.
Too often, we use productivity, time management, and optimization as an excuse to avoid the really difficult question: “Do I actually need to be doing this?” It is much easier to remain busy and tell yourself that you just need to be a little more efficient or to “work a little later tonight” than to endure the pain of eliminating a task that you are comfortable with doing, but that isn’t the highest and best use of your time.
As Tim Ferriss says, “Being busy is a form of laziness — lazy thinking and indiscriminate action.”
I find that the Eisenhower Matrix is particularly useful because it pushes me to question whether an action is really necessary, which means I’m more likely to move tasks to the “Delete” quadrant rather than mindlessly repeating them. And to be honest, if you simply eliminated all of the things you waste time on each day then you probably wouldn’t need any tips on how to be more productive at the things that matter.
Does This Help Me Accomplish My Goal?
One final note: it can be hard to eliminate time wasting activities if you aren’t sure what you are working toward. In my experience, there are two questions that can help clarify the entire process behind the Eisenhower Box.
Those two questions are…
- What am I working toward?
- What are the core values that drive my life?
The Eisenhower Matrix isn’t a perfect strategy, but I have found it to be a useful decision-making tool for increasing my productivity and eliminating the behaviors that take up mental energy, waste time, and rarely move me toward my goals. I hope you’ll find it useful too.