The Eisenhower Box is a strategy based on a principle by Dwight Eisenhower, the 34th President of the United States. He famously lived one of the most productive lives in history, from his successful military background in which he faced difficult decisions daily, to his time in office, where he made several monumental programs that led to the Interstate Highway System, the launch of the internet (DARPA), the exploration of space (NASA), and the peaceful use of alternative energy sources (Atomic Energy Act).
His exceptional vision led him to develop a matrix that helped him prioritize tasks by urgency and importance. Using four quadrants and various strategies, it is now known as the Eisenhower Box, or the Eisenhower Matrix, and even the Urgent-Important Matrix. It has been used to improve and sustain productivity – for a variety of tasks – for decades.
In this article, we’re going to explore the quadrants and go into greater detail about what makes this method so great.
As you can see, the quadrant is separated into four parts: Do, Plan, Delegate, Delete. From the bottom left and moving clockwise, they’re surrounded by the words Not Important, Important, Urgent and Not Urgent. These make four possibilities:
Urgent and important (tasks you will do immediately). Important, but not urgent (tasks you will schedule to do later). Urgent, but not important (tasks you will delegate to someone else). Neither urgent nor important (tasks that you will eliminate).
Let’s break them down.
The Do quadrant contains both the urgent and important tasks. They’re number 1 because they’re the critical tasks that need to be completed as soon as possible. If they’re not completed on time there can be negative consequences, so it’s important to recognize and manage these well. Some examples include deadlines for a client, a medical emergency, food burning in the oven, and anything else that needs an immediate response.
The Plan quadrant focuses on the important but not urgent tasks. It’s the quadrant you’ll spend most of your time in because it focuses on your long-term goals. Some examples include training and educational needs, aspirations around career progression, or even improving your health and fitness. More personal tasks such as spending time with your family or gaining volunteering experience can all fit into this quadrant. What matters to you might not matter to someone else, so the difference between the Do and the Plan quadrant is that Planning for something is just as important as Doing it, but not as urgent. Your goals won’t change, so anything that benefits you long-term needs to sit under quadrant 2.
Delegating tasks is a tricky discipline. That’s why this quadrant relies on your analysis skills. By reviewing each task and working out whether it’s something that you can pass to someone else, you can free up your time to focus on other important tasks. That’s why this quadrant falls under urgent but not important. Recognizing what’s urgent but not important to you can be as simple as asking yourself whether it directly benefits you or gets you closer to achieving your goals. If the answer is no, the task can be delegated to someone else. Some examples include answering the phone to a client when you’re in the middle of a task, or responding to a complaint when in reality it can either wait or be handled by a member of your team.
This is the most useful quadrant, where all tasks that serve no purpose are eliminated. Dealing with this quadrant is neither urgent, nor important; but it is useful, because having a clean-up of tasks that serve you no purpose will free up your time to focus on quadrant 1 and 2. Identifying these tasks is easy. For example, ask yourself whether what you’re doing directly affects your ability to do an urgent and important task. If so, stop doing it. Some examples can include distractions such as mindless web browsing, playing computer games/watching TV, or other inconsequential fixations. That’s not to say down-time isn’t important. But there’s a time and a place, and being disciplined with that time and place is essential to productivity.
Now you understand the matrix a little better, you may be asking yourself how easy or practical it is to implement. How do we stop ourselves from being distracted? How do we identify each quadrant with certainty?
We all procrastinate. But why we do is the key to overcoming it. Most of us are reactive and not pro-active, which means we spend a lot of time completing Do tasks, dipping in and out of Plan tasks, and either ignoring Delegate and Delete tasks or promising ourselves we’ll get to it later. Plan tasks are where most of us get stuck, because they don’t call for us to react immediately, but they are important, so we spend a lot of time thinking about them. One way to figure out if this is you is to assess yourself through a weekly or bi-weekly period. Create enough blank Eisenhower Boxes to cover your assessment period, then fill it in daily with everything you’ve accomplished. At the end of the period, combine the data and work out the time you’ve spent in each grid. You can even work out a percentage, which will give you a clear indication of how long you’ve focused on the individual quadrants.
The key to understanding ourselves is to look at our behavior from an objective point of view. There’s no point lying to ourselves and hoping things will get better. By knowing if we’re reactive and have a tendency to procrastinate, we can begin a journey that helps us do and think better. The Eisenhower Box is an excellent tool to help you on this journey. It encourages us to recognize what an actual urgency is vs. what can wait. You cannot succeed in a time pressured world of overlapping deadlines and daily ‘emergencies’ if you’re unable to clearly define your tasks and organize your priorities. You’ll get overwhelmed, burnt out, and set yourself up for failure. This includes your personal life. Boundaries around work hours and personal hours need to be defined. Do you need to answer that call if you’re focusing on an urgent and important task? Probably not. Give yourself some space. Turn off your phone, shut yourself in a room, eliminate distractions and focus on the task that has the greatest ability to impact your future.
Our advice is to live most of your life in the upper two quadrants. Do gets you by, while Plan ensures your future. Delegate helps you on that journey and Delete eradicates distractions.
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