Being busy is not the same as being productive.
You could spend hours putting out fires and at the end of the day be no closer to reaching your long-term goals. This is a costly and emotionally draining way to spend your time.
The issue is poor prioritization. Humans prioritize time-sensitive tasks over any other task, regardless of the long-term payoffs. When you focus too much time on urgent tasks, you neglect the important ones on your to-do list. It’s easy to get stuck in this reactionary cycle where you constantly stress on the short-term problems, shortchanging yourself of the opportunity to work toward your goals.
By distinguishing between urgent and important tasks, you can focus more time and energy on the things that matter most. The Eisenhower Matrix helps you make that distinction and improve your time management.
Why do I need the Eisenhower Matrix?
The Eisenhower Matrix can help if you:
Need to balance me time, family time and a time for work
Find it difficult to focus on tasks you want to complete
Are busy but feel like your work has little impact
Aren’t making progress on long-term goals
Suffer from procrastination
Struggle to say “no” when asked to do something
Have a hard time delegating tasks
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?”).
What is the Eisenhower Matrix?
The Eisenhower Matrix is a simple decision-making tool that helps you make the distinction between tasks that are important, not important, urgent, and not urgent. It splits tasks into four quadrants that prioritize which tasks you should focus on first and which you should delegate or delete.
The core principle behind the Eisenhower Matrix is the distinction between important and urgent tasks.
Urgent is reactive
Urgent tasks are time-sensitive and demand your attention. They’re tasks you feel obligated to address. Focusing on urgent tasks puts you in a reactive mindset, which can make you feel defensive, rushed, and narrowly-focused.
Important is proactive
Important tasks contribute to your long-term mission, values, and goals. They may not yield immediate results (making them easy to neglect). Sometimes important tasks are also urgent — but usually not. Focusing on important tasks puts you in a responsive mindset, which can make you feel calm, rational, and open to new ideas.
Word of caution: If you put off important tasks long enough, they can become urgent. Important tasks that can become urgent if we pretend to be too busy dealing with the urgent or procrastinate or delay purposefully in the hope of getting to it someday.
People tend to believe that all urgent tasks are also important — when frequently, they are not. This misrepresentation may have to do with our preference for focusing on short-term problems and solutions.
Quadrants of the Eisenhower Matrix
Quadrant 1: Important and urgent / Do
Quadrant 2: Important but not urgent / Schedule
Quadrant 3: Urgent but not important / Delegate
Quadrant 4: Not important, not urgent / Delete
Quadrant 1: Urgent and important tasks
Urgent and important tasks are crises with due dates — such as a last minute review of your common mistakes on practice questions when your exams are the next day. Do these tasks first. They require your immediate attention.
People who spend a lot of their time in this quadrant jump from one situation to the next fooling themselves into believing that it will go away once they attend to it.
Quadrant 2: Not urgent but important tasks
Non-urgent but important tasks help you achieve your goal — and don’t have a pressing deadline. Schedule these tasks to do later. Productive and successful people spend most of their time here — this quadrant yields the most satisfaction.
Most people, however, don’t spend enough time here, because they don’t know what’s important to them or because they’re fixated on the most pressing tasks at hand. Hence, spending more time in this quadrant will require exercising control as it will be the biggest driver in achieving significant results and creating value for yourself and others.
Stephen Covey, the author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, called this the Quadrant of Quality.
Quadrant 3: Urgent and not important tasks
Tasks that fall in this quadrant are nearly always interruptions from your preferred course. These are tasks where you help others meet their goals. Delegate these tasks to others.
Most people spend the majority of their time in this quadrant. They believe they’re working on urgent tasks that are important to them when in reality, completing these tasks does nothing to inch them closer to their long-term goals.
If you work in a team, the tasks in this quadrant are perfect candidates to entrust your team with more responsibilities and empower them to make independent decisions. Delegating work in this manner will not only free up your time to do work that requires careful planning (Quadrant 2), but also establish trust with your team members creating a win-win situation at work.
Quadrant 4: Not urgent and not important tasks
The fastest way to get something done 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, 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.
These tasks aren’t pressing, nor do they help you reach your long-term goals. They’re simply distractions from what matters most. Delete these tasks from your schedule.
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.”
How do I apply this?
First, evaluate where on the matrix you spend your time. Track your time for one week. You can simply track your time in 30-minute increments in a spreadsheet.
After one week, organize your completed tasks into the appropriate quadrant using the following questions as your criteria:
Was this urgent for me?
Was this important to me?
“Me” is the integral word here — you’re organizing these tasks based on your goals, not someone else’s.
Now that your tasks are sorted, take note of the quadrant with the most tasks. If most of your tasks live inside Quadrant 2, congratulations! You have a grasp over what matters most in your life.
As each week passes, set time aside (a few minutes) to review and learn how Eisenhower Matrix is helping you, what did you gain, what can you do better. Self directed learning of this form at work can provide tremendous benefit as it provides a mechanism to put this matrix to use in your own way.
Most people struggle to find time in their busy schedules to tackle those important but not urgent tasks. Integrating the Eisenhower Matrix into your daily workflow will help you schedule your priorities based on what’s most important to you. The Eisenhower Matrix is particularly useful because it pushes one to question whether an action is really necessary, which means people are more likely to move tasks to the “Delete” quadrant rather than mindlessly repeating them.
From another perspective, 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.
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The above information is adapted from RC Victorino's article for slab, Vinita Bansal's article for Tech Tello and James Clear's article for his blog. The above information is correct as on the date of listing. While every reasonable effort has been taken, errors may still arise. The author and publisher shall not be liable for any printing error, typo error or mistake.