How the Eisenhower decision matrix can improve time management

The Right Questions about time management The Best Prioritizing and Time Management Tools: The Eisenhower Matrix

Do you want to get better at time management and setting priorities? Most of us do and fortunately there are some simple tools and approaches that can help us become more effective at making decisions. The Eisenhower Matrix is one such tool.

What is the Eisenhower Matrix?

The Eisenhower matrix is so named because the original concept is accredited to US President Dwight D. Eisenhower. I first came across the concept of the Eisenhower matrix in Stephen Covey’s book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”, it helped me see ‘to-do’ lists in a whole new way and I have used the system ever since. The Eisenhower matrix is a prioritization tool and therefore a good basis for a time management system. It is most commonly used for business prioritization and project management but is just as good for personal time management and is actually best when used to consider everything you do in life, not just work tasks.

I love the Eisenhower matrix as, similarly to the SWOT analysis it is simple, highly effective and based around a four-quadrant matrix that is easy to remember and use.

Time management is vitally important

Time is our most precious resource. This is not a new idea, some of the oldest phrases that we use are related to time, such as: tempus fugit, time flies; or carpe diem, seize the day.

I asked my boss if I could leave half an hour early the other day. 

He said, ” Only if you make up the time.”

I said, ” OK. It’s 35 past 50.”

Time is finite, but even though we cannot create more time we can become better at time management and make more effective use of the time that we have. We do this but prioritizing things, in other words by putting ‘first things first’ and making sure we focus on what is most important at any given time and then putting our energies and resources behind those activities.

Prioritizing is key to effective time management

Prioritizing is key to better productivity, efficiency and effectiveness. Communication and change happen so fast now that you could work around the clock just to keep up with the millions of demands that are fighting for your attention. Email and social media are particularly good at swallowing our time if we are not careful, especially in the age of smart phones that means that we can be connected to the internet and our inbox pretty much anywhere in the world.

The problem is that it is not always that easy to prioritize the things we have to do and that is why it is very helpful to have a prioritization tool to help us. This is where the Eisenhower Matrix comes in.

“The importance of time largely depends upon which side of the bathroom door you are on.”

Are tasks important or urgent?

“What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.” Dwight D. Eisenhower

The Eisenhower matrix works by asking two simple questions of any task we could undertake. The questions are:

  • Is it important?
  • Is it urgent?

By answering yes or no to these questions we come up with a four quadrant matrix that divides tasks into those that are:

1. Important and urgent – things we need to do now

2. Important and not urgent – things we need to plan to do

3. Urgent but not important – things we should try and delegate

4. Not urgent and not important – things we should avoid doing

This process is helpful as it is very easy to waste time on unimportant tasks or to become distracted. Putting our to-do list through the Eisenhower matrix allows us to be much more focused and productive.

Working out whether something is urgent or not is relatively easy as something that has a time dependent nature is usually self-evident.

It can be harder to work out what is truly important. What we consider important is strongly linked to what we value – and therefore to a degree it is subjective – but there are some things that generally fall in the ‘important’ box.

Some common tasks are listed in the diagram below and this can be used as something of a template for your own to-do list.

The Right Questions time management

How to use the Eisenhower Matrix

To use the Eisenhower method, follow these steps:

  1. List: Take a few minutes now to brainstorm and note down the things you have to do 
  2. Analyse: check the importance, ask:
    • What would happen if the task was not completed?
    • Can the task be delegated?
  3. Assess: check the urgency, ask:
    • Does the task have to be done in the next 48 hrs? If so it’s urgent.
  4. Assign: Now you have sorted the tasks, assign them to the different quadrants, listed in priority order
  5. Schedule: Put the tasks into your diary or planner. Put time in the diary not only for the urgent-important tasks but also plan ahead for the quadrant two tasks and make a plan for how and when you are going to delegate the third quadrant tasks.
  6. Action: Start to work through the tasks in priority order
  7. Review: Update and re-assess the priorities regularly (for example once a day)

Want to learn more about time management?

If you want to find out some more about time management and increase your productivity then there are some other good resources you can look to.

As I mentioned previously the Eisenhower matrix is a time management tool that Stephen Covey refers to in his book ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’. I rate this as being in the top ten management and leadership books that I have ever read; it transformed the way I work. You can get a copy by clicking on the image:

Timothy Ferriss – entrepreneur, speaker and author – addresses time management in his book, ‘The 4-Hour Work Week’. Tim is particularly good at applying the 80:20 rule (the Pareto Principle) and he takes time management and outsourcing to the extreme to show how you can achieve a four-hour work week, but you benefit from his life hacks whatever life-work balance you are striving for. You can get a copy here:

You can read more posts on time management and prioritization here:

Three Essential Principles for Prioritisation and Good Decision Making

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9 thoughts on “How the Eisenhower decision matrix can improve time management

  1. Great article Simon – thank you. I use this system already having read Covey’s book some years ago. However, I’ve never managed to find an app or programme that uses this, so I’m forced to hand write my to-do lists! Have you come across anything?

    1. Hi Graham, glad you like the article! I have yet to find an app to help with this either so like you I do handwritten lists or type them into my laptop. I will let you know if I discover something though.

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