Time management gurus extoll the virtues of the Eisenhower Matrix for cutting through the mess and getting to the heart of the matter. If you want a clear and effective method for improving your decision-making prowess, look no further.
If you manage yourself, the Eisenhower matrix can help you clear away the cobwebs and see what matters most today.
By sorting your work life into time management quadrants, you can see the road ahead – and ignore everything else.
While reading this article, I’ll use the word “delegate” as if you ran a department, agency, or organization. As a self-manager, remember you can still delegate – in today’s global marketplace, an army of freelancers sit ready to take on your important-but-not-urgent tasks.
What is the Eisenhower Matrix?
Long before Laurence Fishburne introduced us to the cyberpunk world of the Matrix, another construct shaped our world.
Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 24th President of the United States, created a management tool for delegating authority in the White House.
A five-star general in WWII, “Ike” knew a thing or two about the chain of command – and how to cultivate decision-making skills in his staff.
What is important is seldom urgent, and what is urgent is seldom important.
– Dwight D. Eisenhower
Steven Covey created a simple 2 x 2 matrix from Eisenhower’s insights (and made this quote a staple of business management lore).
Many businesses and government agencies use this clear and concise model to train employees and optimize their operations.
See the Time Management Matrix
Presidents, perhaps more than anyone else, know the limitations of their time. Eisenhower understood he had no chance of answering all the daily pleas for his attention. Instead, he relied on his staff to act as a filter, handling all but the most important issues.
Now wait, my boys, that’s not a staff matter; that’s a policy matter. If we’re going to consider that, I want it brought before the NSC or before the Cabinet.
Balance Delegation and Independent Decision-Making
Harry Truman, the 33rd President of the United States, famously displayed a plaque on his desk that read “The Buck Stops Here.”
The President—whoever he is—has to decide. He can’t pass the buck to anybody. No one else can do the deciding for him. That’s his job.
Although Truman knew the value of decision-making at the highest level of government, he was also known for allowing his subordinates to make policy decisions.
Unlike Truman, Eisenhower delegated tasks and authority, but not policy. When agency and department heads presented problems he considered beneath his notice, he grumbled and sent them back.
Eisenhower expected his staff to understand the difference between important and non-important decisions. In a sense, he trained them to self-delegate; this saved him not only the effort of attending to small decisions but also the energy it took to draw the line.
People in the Eisenhower White House were expected to understand what the President wanted them to bring to his attention – and what he did not.
…whenever I had to make a decision that properly belonged to a subordinate, I admonished him once; but, if he failed again, it was time to begin looking for a replacement.
Know Yourself and Your Limits
As a team lead, manager, or project manager, your work is never done. Just like Eisenhower, Truman, and all leaders, you have to rely on other people.
You aren’t an octopus, no matter how much fun it might be to do everything at once. Your team members are your hands, handling all the work you can’t do alone.
However, management goes far beyond mere supervision. You have to rely on your employees to do some of your thinking for you.
One of the most enduring lessons I learned as a manager was I would never, ever, check everything off my department’s to-do list.
Instead, I had to trust my staff to take care of things on their own, without micromanagement. Moreover, I had to let go of the idea that I could somehow complete, catch-up on, and finalize even my most low-priority work.
Without the help of a couple of a few diligent and dedicated people, I could never have kept things together. They weren’t just my hands; they were my mind.
To work in concert with your team members and achieve an Eisenhower-like level of compartmentalization, you need to communicate your expectations.
You need to train your people to know the difference between tasks and decisions they should make on their own – and those you want to address personally.
Known as both the Urgent Important Matrix and the Important Urgent Matrix, the Eisenhower Matrix (or Eisenhower Box) helps us visualize our tasks and projects.
When you feel overwhelmed by your workload—or tied down by a Lilliputian army of small concerns—use this decision-making method to free yourself. It’s time to focus only on what matters most – and delegate, schedule, and set aside the rest!
Create an Eisenhower Decision Matrix
Eisenhower created his famous system to teach his subordinates about prioritization, delegation, and triage. You can use the Eisenhower Matrix to break a large to-do list down into priorities for yourself and your team.
Before you begin, write Urgent next to all items that need to be done right away; write Important next to the things that really matter. Feel free to mark some items as both, or neither.
Next, create your own Eisenhower Matrix by drawing four squares on a sheet of paper.
In the top-left quadrant of your Eisenhower Matrix, write down all the things on your to-do list that are both Urgent and Important.
Don’t over-analyze or start planning at this stage. Just list the items you identified as both Urgent and Important in the previous step.
Fill in the rest of your 4-square matrix with the appropriate items from your to-do list. Then, take a look at the results.
- Is one box far fuller than the rest?
- Is one empty? If so, re-evaluate your definitions of Important and Urgent.
- Is everything on that list really Important?
- Can some items be redefined as Not Urgent?
Delegate Work/Decisions with the Eisenhower Matrix
You can put this system to use quickly with a few basic rules and concepts:
- Quadrant 1: Urgent and Important
Do it Now. To be clear, do it as soon as you finish creating your Eisenhower Matrix.
Who knows, you may discover an even-more-urgent task!
If you find yourself attending to a lot of Q1 tasks, consider how you can develop your employees’ skill and decision-making levels. Over time, you should be able to turn many Q1 items into Q3 ones!
- Quadrant 2: Important and Not Urgent
Schedule and Plan. You can’t trust these important tasks and decisions to someone else, but they don’t need to be done right away.
Schedule these and put them out of your mind completely. Save all of your focus for Q1 tasks; once you’ve put out all the fires, take another glance at Q2.
- Quadrant 3: Urgent but Not Important
Delegate. Give your team members a chance to prove themselves by handling urgent (but not life-or-death tasks). Learn to separate the Q1 and Q3 parts of a task; you don’t have to do all of a job personally, do you?
For example, you may want to greet that big new client in person, but you can ask a trusted aide to show them around your facility.
- Quadrant 4: Not Urgent and Not Important
Delete. These tasks only clutter up your to-do list and your team’s agenda.
Archive related messages and files for reference, just in case they become more Important or Urgent in the future. Remember, it’s better to just take a break than spend any time/energy on these items.
A Self-Analysis Week with the Eisenhower Matrix
You can use this powerful management tool for far more than slicing and dicing your to-do lists.
Alone or with your team, create one matrix a day for a week. Each day, construct an Eisenhower matrix by listing all the tasks you undertake.
At the end of the week, sit down for the last hour of the day and review your results.
If you’re leading your team through this exercise, ask them where they spent most of their time (refer to the work personalities below).
Have them look at the ways their definitions of Urgent and Important changed over the week. Identify which days of the week had the most Urgency or Non-Urgency. Encourage your employees (and yourself) to smooth out their workflows, avoid unnecessary tasks, and save energy for those times when Urgent tasks seem to come out of the woodwork.
Ideally, you want to spend most of your time in Quadrant 2 (Important but Not Urgent).
If you’re always in Quadrant 1, you need to hire more staff, reduce your workload, or reconsider your definition of Urgent. You should spend little or no time in Quadrant 3; you should delegate or outsource all of these tasks. Of course, if you’re in Quadrant 4, just take some time off; it’s better to take a break than to pretend to work by addressing Q4 tasks.
What Do Your Stephen Covey Quadrants Say about Your Work Personality?
You’ve gotten overwhelmed, done your research, and constructed an Eisenhower time matrix.
You’ve organized and delegated both tasks and decisions to your team members. So, how do you manage your time and ensure things don’t get out-of-control again?
To create a long-lasting and stable team, you need to know yourself and your Eisenhower Matrix tendencies. Skim through this list and decide which quadrant feels the most like you and take the necessary steps to balance out your priorities.
Quadrant 1: Urgent and Important
If you spend most of your time here, you’re either the POTUS, a high-level executive, or a workaholic. Yes, big decisions roll uphill to the highest-status employees in your organization; if you’re at the top, you need to train your staff as Eisenhower did.
If you’re overworking in a low- or middle-level job, consider whether everything is really as Important and Urgent as you feel it is.
- Are you making mountains out of molehills to appear more valuable to the company?
- Or, are you taking on more work than is healthy?
Unless you’re at the very top of the ladder, aim for a healthy balance of Q1 and Q2.
Quadrant 2: Important and Not Urgent
You’ve balanced your time appropriately and spend your time dealing with tasks that matter – but don’t have to be dealt with today.
However, remember that spending a certain amount of time in Q1 indicates a healthy balance. If you spend little or no time in Q1, you can probably handle more responsibility.
Look for ways to demonstrate your leadership abilities, such as clear and calm prioritization in crisis situations.
Quadrant 3: Urgent but Not Important
If you spend your time putting out small, routine fires, you need to recruit more firefighters. Develop trust in your employees by giving them opportunities to prove themselves.
Let them know you’ll give them authority over a small task if they show they can manage it on their own. Most people will jump at the chance to earn more respect in your organization!
Don’t be greedy with responsibility; you don’t have to do everything. When people higher up the ladder see you don’t hoard tasks (and develop your team members instead), you’ll gain their trust and rise up, yourself!
Quadrant 4: Not Urgent and Not Important
When I find myself doodling and dawdling with unimportant tasks, I get up and take a break. I know myself; sometimes, I just don’t have a lot of energy but feel the need to work, anyway.
If you manage yourself (or work as a student), pay close attention to Q4. Do you feel better changing the fonts and colors of your spreadsheets, or would you rather take a walk?
Procrastination lives in Q4; if you’re tired and overworked, take a real break, don’t drain what little energy you have on very-low-priority tasks.
The Bottom Line: Managing Your Time and Your Team
You can use the Eisenhower Matrix as an exercise in personal time management.
You can teach your team about the Steven Covey quadrants so they know when to come to you with issues. In fact, you can go a step further and share this method with them to develop their own self-management skills.
Whatever your agenda, it pays to use the Eisenhower Matrix in conjunction with Toggl’s time tracking app. You can easily create timesheets and reports to see at a glance how much time you and your team spend on high- and low-priority tasks – and even how much time you spend in the Eisenhower Matrix!