Almost everyone knows that Dwight D. Eisenhower was an American president. Fewer people recall that he was the 34th president. Fewer still know that he was one of the most productive men who ever existed.
Eisenhower sat in the Oval Office from 1953 to 1961. During that time, he:
- Launched NASA, beginning the American exploration of space
- Created DARPA, paving the way for the internet
- Constructed the Interstate Highway System
- Signed the Atomic Energy Act, leading to more sustainable energy sources
- Became the first Supreme Commander of NATO
- Served as President of Columbia University
- Made plenty of time for leisure: oil painting and golf
For many people today, a productive day looks like:
- Brushed teeth
- Didn’t die
That’s probably why there’s no such thing as the ‘Dave Matrix.’ (Just kidding, Dave.)
In addition to his unquestionable work ethic and drive, above all, Dwight Eisenhower was a master of his time. Managing exactly what he was focusing on and exactly when he was focusing on it was what led to such a stunning list of accomplishments.
The crux of his task management skills? The ability to parse and define things that are important against things that are urgent.
“I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”
— The man himself
That is where the Eisenhower Matrix comes in. We’re going to explore what it is, what it does, and how you can start using it today to avoid wasting time and procrastinating.
Yes…even you, Dave.
What is the Eisenhower Matrix?
The Eisenhower Matrix (or the Eisenhower Box) is a prioritization tool which lets you clarify which items on your to-do list require the quickest action.
The matrix is sectioned into four quadrants in order of immediacy:
- Q1 (Green): Important and urgent
- Q2 (Blue): Important but not urgent
- Q3 (Red): Not important but urgent
- Q4 (Gray): Neither important or urgent
Though the two terms can be used as synonyms, it is essential to understand the difference. In the words of Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People:
“Urgent tasks are unavoidable; there are clear consequences for not completing them.”
“Important tasks are those that contribute to long-term goals and life values. These items require planning and thoughtful action.”
So what does that mean for us?
- Q1: Important and urgent → Do
- Q2: Important but not urgent → Decide
- Q3: Not important but urgent → Delegate
- Q4: Neither important or urgent → Delete
Let’s take a deeper dive into each quadrant and look at some examples.
Q1: Important and urgent → Do ✅
If your house was on fire, would you put “Save family and grab dog” in your Google Calendar? Probably not.
Not only is it important for your long-term well-being to have a family that’s alive and well, but it is imperative that you do something about it immediately. Thus making it an important and urgent task.
Not everything in Q1 has to be so life-or-death. Finishing an assignment for a job you’re applying for. Changing a flat tire on the side of the road. Dropping your daughter off at school. All of these examples are time-sensitive and need to be done as soon as possible.
While the repercussions of these last three examples don’t compare to your house burning down, putting off each of them would lead to noticeably unfavorable results. Not finishing the assignment means no job. Not changing the tire means no car. Not dropping your daughter off means tardiness and stress.
Therefore, it only makes sense that the items in Q1 take priority over the other three. This is why we call it the Do section; these are the things that simply must get done.
Q2: Important but not urgent → Decide 📅
Let’s take it down a peg.
Say your house is not in flames, but you live in an area where wildfires are prevalent. You and your spouse agree you should meet with your lawyer, go through the paperwork, and buy fire insurance. That’s pretty important, but it’s not urgent.
It’s not time-sensitive because there’s not yet a fire to worry about. It’s a bit ambiguous and uncertain. But it’s important for you and your family’s long-term safety and well-being should anything go horribly wrong.
Because of the uncertainty of Q2 tasks, they are much easier to put off. Unlike Q1, the consequences for not completing these items take much longer to hit us. Examples include: purchasing insurance, practicing piano, working out.
You don’t feel the pain of putting off buying insurance until a fire reaches your town. Procrastinating on your chords and scales stings when a year goes by and you realize you’re still bad at playing piano. Consistently skipping the gym really hurts when you wake up and see that you’re 20 pounds heavier.
Q2 is all about favoring long-term satisfaction over short-term pleasure. The lack of urgency and often mundane nature of these important tasks tend to leave them unfinished despite having the most impact on our lives in the long run.
Q3: Not important but urgent → Delegate 📥
Okay, okay. Your house isn’t on fire and you’ve insured it to be safe. Now, your Homeowners Association has assigned you the task of setting up fire insurance for everyone on your street by next Friday.
Once again, we have a time condition. A specific project must be completed by a specific date, making this an urgent to-do item.
The crucial difference here, however, is that while you care about all of your neighbors (except Dave), this is not something of particular importance to your own daily life. Q3 tasks are things that need to be done immediately, but they are typically based on someone else’s priorities.
This is often busy work. And there are a couple of ways to handle it.
If you have some sort of team at your disposal, you can delegate it or outsource it. There are plenty of successful YouTubers who hire video editors or script writers to save them time and headache. You could save money and wash your own car, or you could sacrifice $10 for the convenience of having a professional (or a robot) do it for you. Rather than calling the landlord each month, you could set up automatic online rent payments.
Just like in Q1, the repercussions for not completing these urgent tasks are felt quickly: fewer videos uploaded, dirty car, late fees. But–lucky for you–they are tasks which could easily be handed off to someone or something else.
Of course, not everyone has the luxury of working with a team. Most of us have to suck it up and do things that aren’t important to us.
The ability to say no, while not always possible, can do some real good here. If your boss asks you to take on a project that you simply don’t have the time nor the desire to take on, try declining in a respectful yet honest way. The same goes for when an acquaintance you’re not particularly fond of asks you to coffee; it may be time-sensitive, but it’s not all that important when it comes down to it.
You could even politely push back in some cases. If a roommate asks you to do the dishes, but you’re super busy and stressed, you could say something like, “Hey, I’m so sorry. Could you do them please and I promise I’ll do them next time?”
The point here is to either delegate, avoid, or limit Q3 tasks as much as possible because overall they don’t move you toward your priorities.
Q4: Neither important or urgent → Delete 🗑
Finally. Your house is ember-free. It’s insured. Stupid Dave has his stupid home secured. Now what?
Now, you could sit down and practice piano, work out, plan your week…but instead you decide to go on Instagram and scroll through your feed for a few minutes.
When you get up, you realize those few minutes turned into a few hours. Welcome to Q4.
Time-wasters. Distractions. Productivity-killers.
There’s an obvious caveat here: Doing fun and mindless activities to take a break from your everyday banalities is not a bad thing. Making time for Netflix, video games, or Snapchat can even be good for our brain space. No human is 100% productive and disciplined all the time. Even The Rock has a cheat day.
The problem occurs when these Q4 activities come at the cost of the other quadrants. Queen’s Gambit is a great show, but if you’re binge watching it instead of applying for that job, this delightful series is doing serious damage.
That’s why it’s best to eliminate items that fall into Q4. They are neither important nor urgent.
It’s also important to note that Q4 items can trick you into thinking they are necessary. In Thomas Frank’s video on the Eisenhower Matrix, he mentioned his obsession with getting multiple camera angles during his podcasts. Once he started using only the single, wide shot, the simplicity of the videos were actually praised by his audience. Not only did his fans appreciate him deleting this aspect, or ‘task,’ but it also saved him and his editor a ton of time.
How to Use the Eisenhower Matrix.
Again, the Eisenhower Matrix is a time management tool to make prioritizing the things you want to get done faster and easier.
After you have captured all of your to-dos and accurately determined which quadrants they fall in, it all boils down to simply doing them.
Q1 items will almost certainly be done first. Q2 tasks will go on your calendar. Q3 tasks will be delegated or outsourced. And Q4 activities will be ignored until all the other priorities have been handled.
It should be said that these matrices aren’t universal. Each item is totally contextual. What is in Q2 for one person might be in Q1 for someone else. We all have different values, obligations, and schedules. This tool is meant to help us maneuver around these factors so we can get more things done in a manageable way.
Depending on your workflow, it might be more productive to take care of Q2 and Q3 items first, and then move on to Q1. That way, you don’t have to worry about administrative stuff like scheduling or planning while you’re doing your most important work.
Finally, when using the Eisenhower Matrix, beware of the “Mere Urgency Effect.” This is the state of only dealing with Q1 tasks — where everything you do feels urgent and important. It’s often referred to when comparing productivity to busyness.
You can work on 100 different to-dos in a day and get nothing done. This leads to burnout. That’s why it’s necessary to find harmony between the quadrants.
What does your harmony look like? How much time are you spending in each quadrant? What would you change?
Grab a sheet of paper, check out the online resources below, and try the Eisenhower Matrix for yourself.
It could seriously help you stop procrastinating and eliminate time-wasters (like Dave), allowing you to take care of what matters most: Putting first things…first.
If you’d like more tips and hacks on how to use your time well, follow me on Twitter (@DillanRoy) to follow along with my business endeavors.