Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces during WWII and President of the United States from 1953 to 1961, was known for his ruthless decision-making and problem-solving skills under extreme pressure.
His reputation precedes him mainly because he made a clear distinction between “efficiency” (doing things right) and “effectiveness” (doing the right things). His insights gave birth to the Eisenhower Matrix — an efficient framework for decision-making, prioritization, and task management.
What is the Eisenhower Matrix?
The Eisenhower matrix, also known as the Eisenhower decision matrix or the “Urgent-important” box, is an easy and intuitive framework that balances what’s urgent and what’s important. Many work management tools and apps are employed in the workplace—opt for one that suits your daily tasks and workflow.
Resource allocation is as equally essential as deciding what’s urgent and important. When running a team, you must know who is available to handle the coming tasks—urgent or not. We compiled a list of some of the best resource management software to help you out with resource distribution.
If you focus solely on the urgent—the “must do,” the “do-or-die”—you will be under considerable stress that may lead to burnout. If you focus only on the important—the “want to do”—ignoring your duties, the missed deadlines and unresolved tasks will pile up and eventually cripple you with anxiety, guilt, and shame.
Tip: Beware of the “appeal trap,” thinking a task is important because you like it. Color-coding notes can wait until you’ve finished writing that research paper.
The urgent-important principle brings clarity of purpose in establishing your core values, making progress toward your goals, and leading a less stressful life. It is a practical method for task categorization, which helps you form the foundation for structuring and organizing your world. Especially if you are getting into project management and learning how to be a project manager, this method will help you break into your pm niche.
Think of the Eisenhower matrix as a visual to-do list, organized as a prioritization box in four quadrants: DO, SCHEDULE, DELEGATE, and DELETE. Let’s look at each separately and how they work out in Paymo.
Eisenhower Decision Matrix
Q1 – both urgent & important
Urgent and important tasks – Task list with a due date in Paymo
Tasks you must DO.
Start your day working on Q1 tasks. Boost productivity levels and perform better by employing the Eat the frog method. These tips will make the difference between feeling productive and being productive.
Q1 tasks cannot be delegated and should be done as soon as possible—right now. They have dire consequences if you fail to meet the deadline. For sure, there are different levels of “urgent.” There’s crisis management (e.g., “mediate hostility between X and Y,” “medical check-up for neck lump,” “fix burst pipe”) and task management (e.g., “finish presentation for the client meeting,” “GMAT exam tomorrow”). Make sure you first deal with your crisis management tasks.
Q2 – important but not urgent
Important but not urgent tasks – Task list in Paymo
Tasks you should SCHEDULE for later.
Granularity is one sure way to progress on your personal and professional goals. The more detailed your task, the more likely you will achieve it. So, turn your chunky Q2 tasks into sizable actionable bits. Break “finish 5000w draft” into subtasks:
- finish outline
- write the intro
- edit according to the stylesheet
- find references
- send it to Mandy for peer review, etc.
Use the tasks and subtasks in Paymo:
Subtasks in Paymo
Another strategy is to set self-imposed deadlines for your Q2 tasks as a binding mechanism to get you to make progress. Still, you’d have to test this strategy first since self-imposed deadlines aren’t always practical, as studies show, mainly due to poor self-control and our tendency to push flexible deadlines.
Q3 – urgent but not important
Urgent but not important tasks – Task list in Paymo
Tasks you should DELEGATE.
Busyness does not mean engagement. If you are not intentional with your time and energy, you will be in the vicious circle of checking off tasks that don’t add value to your work or personal growth.
Q3 tasks are the tasks you need to get done but don’t want to. So, assign or delegate them to a colleague, train a subordinate—considering the 30x rule—or hire a virtual assistant. If these options aren’t doable, try reframing Q3 tasks to hone a new skill. Or time-box Q3 tasks during your less productive hours of the day.
Of all ridiculous things, the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy—to be a man who is brisk about his food and his work… What, I wonder, do these busy folks get done? — Søren Kierkegaard
Q4 – neither urgent nor important
Neither urgent nor important tasks – Task list in Paymo
Tasks you should DELETE.
Not all procrastination is evil. Instead of watching Youtube videos or spending time on Quora or Reddit, choose an easy or comfortable task from your Q2 or Q4. Make progress by working on something less urgent and a little less important.
If you want to procrastinate, go for it! But work on that idea you’ve been thinking about before falling asleep — that novel you’ve always wanted to write, that video you’ve been meaning to make, your new business or app idea. This type of procrastination is called “structured procrastination.”
You don’t need to stop procrastiworking if it’s helping you get things done. But make sure you are not like my former self. In my experience, I used to delay tasks to do something fun—this hedonistic delay is obviously a productivity killer.
Tip: When you want to “procrastiwork” (“putting off the work you’re supposed to do by working on something else”), combine one menial task (e.g., doing paperwork) with something pleasurable (e.g., listening to your favorite podcast) to get that task done. Bundling highly pleasurable activities with distasteful ones is a strategy called “temptation bundling.”
Allow your brain to unfocus. I make a clear rule of what makes my Q4 list of distractions: playing guitar, doing calisthenics, catching a snooze, going for a walk, brewing a proper cup of tea, sketching, practicing my hand-lettering skills, learning vocabulary in Portuguese, and so on.
What these examples have in common is that they are active. All these allow my brain to process the information and wander in a relaxed state while ensuring they don’t put my brain in the backseat. Don’t zombie out binge-watching your favorite show. That’s a bad kind of distraction.
How to make your own Eisenhower Matrix in Paymo
Using Marie Kondo’s tidying up magic, let’s create our own Eisenhower matrix in Paymo.
For the record, Marie Kondo is a Japanese tidying expert and bestselling author known for her organization and decluttering methods close to minimalism, encouraging her clients to keep only the things that “spark joy.” Like Marie’s framework, commit to using the prioritization matrix for at least a month.
Imagine your ideal workload or to-do list by focusing on tasks that “spark joy” and discard those that cripple you with anxiety.
The best way to choose what to keep and what to throw away is to take each item in one’s hand and ask: “Does this spark joy?” If it does, keep it. If not, dispose of it. This is the simplest and the most accurate yardstick by which to judge. — Marie Kondo
Step #1: Lay out your weekly to-do list
Do an initial brain dump, listing all the tasks you should complete for the month, just as you would dump everything that needs to be sorted into one massive pile in the middle of your workspace. That pile is called a “master list.” The workload may seem daunting—so first, pick out your tasks for the week.
Eisenhower Matrix Master Task List (Table View)
Step #2: Start the discarding process
Let’s start the task clutter clean-up. Here are my two guiding principles for keep/toss decisions:
“Less is more.” If you’ve been rescheduling some tasks for months now and can’t find the time or the energy to work on them, see if the tasks are worth it. People’s interests change over time, so maybe that task no longer aligns with your values or goals. Ask yourself, “Do I need to be doing this?”.
If you’ve been dreading menial tasks, see if you can delegate or assign them to a subordinate, a personal assistant, or if you can teach someone to do them.
Does this task “spark joy”? Finishing a task releases dopamine, but does the task motivate you to achieve it just by doing it? Or do you simply want to cross it off your to-do list? Be honest—you don’t want to fix that land mower yourself, so why not buy a new one or get it serviced? If it produces needless disappointment for constantly putting it off, discard that task. It may not be worth the hassle. Decluttering your to-do list will give you peace of mind.
Eisenhower Matrix Task List Due Date (Table View)
Step #3: Organise tasks by quadrants
Once you’ve set due dates and toggled “Task List” in Paymo, start assigning priority – “critical” for Q1, “high” for Q2, “normal” for Q3, “low” for Q4. Limit each quadrant to 4-5 tasks. Underestimate how much you can get done in a week and overestimate how long each task will take.
Use the flowchart below to help you with your labeling and keep/toss decisions:
Eisenhower Matrix Decision Tree
For Q1 tasks, use relative prioritization by assigning your tasks a priority number 1-5 (wherein 1 is “critical”) or letter A-E (for order of completion).
Urgent and important tasks – updated – Task list with a due date in Paymo
For Q2 tasks, use granularity to make them actionable. You may set a self-imposed deadline, too. Since they are not urgent, you can do them in your small pockets of free time.
Important but not urgent tasks – updated – Task list in Paymo
For Q3 tasks, minimize, outsource, or automate them. It’s OK to politely say “no” to specific tasks (e.g., “run errand for Bob”). Resolve to only work on Q3 tasks after you’ve finished Q1 and Q2.
Urgent but not important tasks – updated – Task list in Paymo
For Q4 tasks, replace zombie tasks with relaxing or creative ones. You can also reframe them to make progress towards Q2.
Neither urgent nor important tasks – updated – Task list in Paymo
Tip: Repurpose your Q4 tasks in such a way as to bring value. Instead of watching a one-hour compilation of cat videos, how about watching a 20-minute DIY tutorial on building a cat tree for your feline friend? Instead of endlessly scrolling your social media feed, call a friend.
Step #4: Review your week
At the end of your week, reflect on what went well and what didn’t. Use a few metrics — time spent, words written, average task completion rate. Maybe you’ve successfully finished 15/18 tasks (an 83.33% completion rate), written 3500/5000 words, and spent 7.5 hours on your report out of the 6 hours you planned initially.
Overview of the time worked and completed tasks in Paymo
Assess tasks qualitatively — what was this week’s highlight? Which task were you too optimistic about? What shouldn’t have made the list and ended up wasting your time?
Reflecting on your week will help you organize and plan better for the next. You can gain insight into your work and progress by asking the right questions. You’ll see patterns and habits you might want to replace or reinforce.
TIP #1: Regarding metrics, task and time tracking go hand in hand when prioritizing and scheduling tasks in advance. Work tracking will give you a clear picture of where you’re spending your time, thus helping you with time reporting. This information can be used for future reference when estimating jobs. For a better overview of your tracked time, check out this ultimate guide to employee time tracking software.
TIP #2: Another popular time tracking method is the Pomodoro Technique for all those searching for a 25-minute timer for Mac or Windows.
For a squeaky clean to-do list
Use the Eisenhower matrix, an easy and intuitive framework for prioritizing and categorizing your tasks into four quadrants: DO, SCHEDULE, DELEGATE, and DELETE. This way, you will be prepared for whatever might come at you and still have some control over task outcomes.
Note: I’ve recently written an article on mental fatigue and increased cognitive load and how the Eisenhower Matrix can help lessen your (mental) workload, among other tips and strategies.
The urgent-important principle will help you to sift through your tasks. So, start decluttering or repurposing those pesky time-wasters, and keep whichever “sparks joy.”
First published on September 21, 2020.
Drawing from a background in cognitive linguistics and armed with 10+ years of content writing experience, Alexandra Martin combines her expertise with a newfound interest in productivity and project management. In her spare time, she dabbles in all things creative.