Why the Eisenhower Matrix Outlived Its Inventor
The Eisenhower matrix does one good thing. And that is to distinguish between urgent and important tasks. Learn how this helps to manage your time.
Step 1/3 in our fundamental time management skills section is about understanding priorities.
~~~ Urgent versus important ~~~
For the planning process, it is useful to separate your tasks into different groups. The Eisenhower Matrix approach is to separate tasks according to their urgency and importance.
Important tasks are those that most effectively help your department and company achieve their objectives.
Urgent tasks, or tasks perceived as such, consume over-proportional attention. In the face of a ticking clock urgent is often being confused with important. Working continuously on urgent tasks can lead to feeling overwhelmed or even burn-out. Don’t spend more than 20%-30% over prolonged periods on these. If you do, analyse why.
Important and urgent
The entire “important-urgent matrix” is very simple. If an important task becomes urgent, it should be the most important tasks for the day. Plan time for the “important urgent” task first thing in the morning, and start working on it immediately. Important tasks are the ones that you want to dedicate appropriate time on. Once they become urgent you may not have enough time to manage them accordingly, or it might put you under undue stress. Maintaining a to-do list will help avoiding important tasks becoming urgent. If you have many daily issues in this category don’t forget that new arising issues often appear heightened in their importance. Evaluate with a cool head.
Important but not urgent
In the Eisenhower Matrix, to avoid important tasks becoming urgent it is necessary to start working on them at the right time. Strategic initiatives like improving your business processes or tasks such as providing staff the right level of training to avoid them making mistakes will be in this category. Most of your tasks should fall into this category (~60%). Reality is different. External circumstances will often divert time and attention from these tasks to the detriment of your career and your company’s success. For this reason, you have to plan time for important but non-urgent tasks and protect this time vigilantly.
Not important but urgent
Being honest with yourself you might find that most of our days are filled with not important but urgent tasks, issues and emails. Urgency can easily be confused with importance. Critically question if these tasks really have to be done. If it has to be done, delegate where possible. If you can’t delegate, stay with us to learn some tips to be efficient with these tasks.
Not important and not urgent
You might wonder if anybody really does not important and not-urgent tasks. Sometimes they need to be done, like housekeeping or filing and so on. Another common source are tasks that were necessary at some stage and have become a routine task. Once a task becomes routine it is not being questioned again. Review your responsibilities and watch out for these type of tasks. If you have any, stop doing them! Refer to this section, “The Eisenhower Matrix Planning Cycle” for some ideas how to do that.
There are duties that are not negotiable, like dropping kids off at school at a certain time. I have often heard that people can’t plan their time because of these commitments. See them as constraints in your schedule. Plan them as fixed tasks and fill the time around as best as you can. Don’t disempower yourself by saying “I can’t do this or that.” Do as best as you genuinely can to prioritise better.
Watch out there are other types of tasks that get confused with important:
- Urgent is NOT important
- Complex is NOT important
- Buzz is NOT important
- Interesting is NOT important
- Unclear is NOT important
When you get a new tasks just test it this way:
“Is this task really important or is it just …. (e.g. interesting)?”
The four tasks types that we have just described constitute the Eisenhower method for prioritisation, whereas non-negotiables are constraints.
Take your task list and assign a priority to each of them. Use the category letters A, B, C and D or colors if you prefer that. If you are overwhelmed by the sheer number of tasks, just cover half or more of them off and assign priorities. Then do it with the next part.
If you can’t decide which of two tasks is more important, flip a coin. You will instinctively agree or disagree. If you disagree, the other one is more important – decision made!
It is very useful to have a generic priority map for your general responsibilities. This will help assessing any new arising task quickly and also avoid that urgent requests appear higher in importance than they are. Review these on a continuous basis and readjust where required to prioritise tasks effectively..”
How to reduce stress by planning well
Now that you know about the different types of tasks, you can follow these tips to plan them out.
~~~ When to plan ~~~
Plan on the day before - Before you leave the office for the day, plan your time for the next day. Same applies for the next week. Plan the next week roughly on a Friday afternoon. It does two good things: One, it’s easier to plan while things are still fresh in your mind; Two, once things are planned, it gives you a better feeling, like having tidied up your home before going on vacation. You know you will not come back to a mess.
~~~ Urgent and important: The most important task ~~~
“A wise person does at once what a fool does at last.” - Baltasar Gracian, ~1650 (!)
1 Get up on the right foot - Ever found yourself checking a few emails in the morning? You find some burning issues, then you have a meeting, followed by other interruptions. Before you know what’s going on, half the day is gone. Sound familiar? Urgent emails and good time management can work together; we’ll explain more about this later.
2 Start your day with the most important task for the day. Decide on this task the evening before and look into it for five minutes. You will start thinking about it subconsciously. By the time you come back to work the next day you will have had some ideas. The key is to start working on this task as soon as you walk into the office, Don’t waste a second with anything else, including email.
3 To find the most important task simply ask yourself, “If I get only one thing done tomorrow what would that be?” Use your priority list (Eisenhower). Don’t avoid difficult tasks, as they are often the most important ones.
4 Once this first task is accomplished, you will feel great. You will have already achieved an important goal for the day. It will give you momentum and energy for the next few hours. Many people work overtime because they start important tasks late and then feel guilty leaving the office before finishing them. Break this habit. This one tip is commonly seen as one of the most valuable.
~~~ Important but not urgent: think long-term ~~~
“In a year from now…” How about big tasks that require long time commitments or are important but not urgent? Sometimes we don’t start bigger tasks because we don’t think we have got the time to finish them in the foreseeable future. For instance, self-development or improvement projects require major time commitments. Does it mean you need to do them in a contiguous block?
Allow for example one hour on two days per week. Even this little time commitment amounts to a full day per month or twelve days per year. How often do you lose an hour per day in an unproductive meeting or discussion?
This principle can be applied on most high-leverage, long-term projects and tasks that are not urgent. Think about all the things you can achieve in twelve days and remember the saying, “In a year from now, you may wish you would have started a year ago.”
~~~ Not important but urgent ~~~
Once you have accomplished the most crucial task of the day, you’ve got time to move onto smaller tasks and issues. These are the tasks that you have to be particularly efficient with.
Three simple tips for what is the biggest problem for many people:
1 Group small and similar tasks - For example process all your emails in one continuous time block and switch them off when working on other tasks. If required have 2-3 time blocks for emails. This rule applies to any small task. Phone calls? Do them in one hit. Set yourself a deadline for this block of tasks.
2 Many meetings? Group them. For instance, have three meetings back-to-back rather than having gaps of 30 minutes in between, unless a debrief is required. It allows you to plan longer concentration phases that span 60-90 minutes rather than short 30 minutes chunks which usually get filled with dross. Enforce meeting discipline by saying at the meeting’s start that you have to leave on time.
3 Fire fighting – Putting out fires at work? Put an hour into your calendar to deal with all burning issues for the day in one go rather than interrupting yourself several times throughout the day. Don’t forget to finish the most important task for the day before you jump into small tasks or fire fighting. The most difficult part about this is to stop your impulse to jump onto issues. It is possible but requires some mental disciple until you get used to it. Knowing when to get into fire fighting makes time management strategies work.
However, common to both is: Don’t get burned (out) fighting fires all day! Plan your time and save energy!
The tips above work well due to the cost of distraction. Many studies have shown that once distracted, it will take you in excess of eight minutes to fully focus back onto the task that got interrupted. Consider what it means if you check your emails every ten minutes?
Molecular Biologist Professor John Medina points out in this great book “Brain Rules” that attention cannot be divided upon two things. This is an important consideration in how you plan your day and work environment.
~~~ Not urgent and not important ~~~
Be particularly efficient with these tasks and do them at a time where you are generally low in energy. That could be for you after lunch or before leaving the office. Things like filing are neither important nor urgent (except for some professions). The perfect time might be to invest five minutes before you leave the office. Be particularly efficient with these tasks.
~~~ Consider the sequence ~~~
Flow and contiguous time - Avoid many scattered appointments through the day that interrupt your flow. Create a few uninterrupted two hour time blocks in your day for important tasks.
Alter energy - Alter tasks that differ in the energy type required or vary in difficulty levels. After you have spent two hours concentrated on the most important task, have a small snack, and then jump into emails or fire fighting mode. It seems like we have got different energy reservoirs for different energy types: deep concentration, light concentration, physical activities. Switching to a different energy type seems to recharge the not utilised ones. This is also why people can go for a run on their lunch break and then feel refreshed to work again.
Theme days - Another approach to grouping tasks can be to focus on particular tasks on a certain day. For instance, Mondays for reporting and planning, Tuesdays for the bulk of your meetings, Wednesdays for improvement initiatives, and so on. This can put you into the right frame of mind over the entire day. It does’t have to cover the whole day, but possibly 50-75%.
With these tips in mind, you can start planning you week and days in detail. Remember, effective planning is the key to managing issues with time management.
Learn more about fundamental time management skills
Check out our main article on time management or one of the specialised articles in this mini series.
A weekly planner will help you protect your time for important tasks and separate it out from the time for urgent tasks, meetings, emails and so on. Learn how you can use it as a blueprint for a typical week.
If you want to know more about prioritisation and interested in a very different approach, check out our key article: a step-by-step guide on Prioritisation (click this link).
By Murat Uenlue, PhD, PMP, 2013.