The Eisenhower Matrix

The X-Files? The Matrix? Is there a new movie coming up?

Sorry, no. The Eisenhower Matrix is a simple tool to figure out where to focus your attention. It’s based on the quote: “What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.” This is commonly attributed to Eisenhower, but his actual words were different.

Still, that false quote succinctly describes the core idea about anything that demands our attention. It can be defined along two different axes that sound very similar although they are fundamentally different:

  • Is it urgent?
  • Is it important?

Whenever you are faced with a task or an interruption, those two questions will help you sort it into one of four categories, as in the examples below. The trick is to understand that you should never do unimportant stuff. Not even if it’s urgent!

matrix with 4 quadrants

I’ve known this for almost 20 years via Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and I’m using the idea on a daily basis – when sorting mails, when getting tasks from coworkers, when walking into the garage and seeing the mess … everywhere. I’ve only recently realized that the concept is much older.

When I pay attention to this matrix, it’s embarrassing to discover how much of my time and energy I spend on unimportant stuff. We all procrastinate sometimes (Quadrant 4), but this perspective can be an eye opener. All that effort doesn’t bring us any value and does not move us closer to our goals.

The ideal is to spend most of your energy in Quadrant 2: only work on important stuff, and enjoy that it’s not urgent. Most things will become urgent if you ignore them long enough, and it’s stressful to have too many urgent and important things going on. On the bright side, few unimportant things will suddenly become important. Usually when this seems to happen, it’s actually a realization that you should have treated it as important from the start.

James Clear expands on this simple idea by adding actions into each quadrant:

do or delegate?

The actions “Do,” “Decide,” and “Delete” are very straightforward. Only the “Delegate” action is tricky, because most of us don’t have an assistant that does the grunt work for us. Instead, take it as an opportunity to examine whether those tasks are really needed in your life: If they are, then they are probably important. The rest must then be unimportant and can hopefully be eliminated.

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