Tidying Up Your Task Clutter Using the Eisenhower Matrix

Alexandra Martin

Written by

Alexandra Martin

Read Time

8 minutes

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 strikes the balance between what’s urgent and what’s important.

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, then 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 your notes can wait until after you’ve finished writing that research paper.

The urgent-important principle brings clarity of purpose in establishing your core values, making progress to 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.

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 one, separately, and how they work out in Paymo.

Eisenhower Decision Matrix

Eisenhower Decision Matrix

Q1 – both urgent & important

Tasks you must DO.

Task list Paymo

Urgent and important tasks – Task list with due date in Paymo

Start your day working on Q1 tasks. Boost your productivity levels by employing the Eat the frog method. 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. Granted, there are different levels of “urgent” — 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

Tasks you should SCHEDULE for later.

Task list Paymo

Important but not urgent tasks – Task list in Paymo

One sure way to make progress on your personal and professional goals is granularity. The more detailed your task, the more likely it is you will actually achieve it. So, turn your chunky Q2 tasks into sizable actionable bits (e.g. turn “finish 5000w draft” into subtasks — “(1) finish outline; (2) find references” etc.). Use the subtasks in Paymo for this exact purpose:

Subtasks in Paymo

Subtasks in Paymo

Another strategy is to set self-imposed deadlines to 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 effective, as studies show, mainly due to poor self-control and our tendency to push flexible deadlines.

Q3 – urgent but not important

Tasks you should DELEGATE.

Urgent but not important task

Urgent but not important tasks – Task list in Paymo

Busyness does not mean engagement. If you are not intentional with your time and energy, you will find yourself 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 (taking into consideration the 30x rule), or hire a virtual assistant to do them. 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

Tasks you should DELETE.

neither urgent nor important tasks

Neither urgent nor important tasks – Task list in Paymo

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”.

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 favourite 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, practising my hand-lettering skills, learning vocabulary in Portuguese, and so on. What these examples have in common is that they are active in nature. All these allow my brain to process the information and wander in a relaxed state, while making sure they don’t put my brain in the backseat. Don’t zombie out binge-watching your favourite show. Needless to say, that’s a bad kind of distraction.

How to make your own Eisenhower Matrix in Paymo

Let’s create our own Eisenhower matrix in Paymo using Marie Kondo’s tidying up magic.

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”. Similar to 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 those tasks which “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 not only the simplest but also 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 huge 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 task list

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 really worth it. People’s interests change over time, so maybe that task no longer aligns with your values or goals. Ask yourself, “Do I actually 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 really want to fix that land mower yourself, so why not just buy a new one or get it serviced? If it produces needless disappointment for constantly putting it off, discard that task altogether. It may not be worth the hassle. Decluttering your to-do list will give you peace of mind.

Eisenhower Matrix Task List Due Date

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:

Decision Tree

Eisnehower 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).

Updated task list in Paymo

Urgent and important tasks – updated – Task list with 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.

Updated task list in Paymo

Important but not urgent tasks – updated – Task list in Paymo

For Q3 tasks, minimise, outsource, or automate them. It’s OK to politely say “no” to certain tasks (e.g. “run errand for Bob”). Resolve to only work on Q3 tasks after you’ve finished Q1 and Q2.

Updated task list in Paymo

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.

Updated task list in Paymo

Neither urgent nor important tasks – updated – Task list in Paymo

TIP: Repurpose your Q4 tasks in such a way 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 (a 83.33% completion rate), written 3500/5000 words, and spent 7.5 hours on your report out of the 6 hours that you’ve planned initially.

Overview time worked

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?

By asking the right questions you can gain insight into your own work and progress. You’ll see patterns and habits you might want to replace or reinforce. Reflecting on your week will help you organise and plan better for the next.

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.

The urgent-important principle will help you to sift through your tasks. So, start decluttering or repurposing those pesky time-wasters, and keep whichever “spark joy”.

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