Choosing your priorities for the day isn’t always easy.

In fact, it can be downright complicated. Imagine this scenario: You have a long list of to-dos. The phone is ringing. Your email inbox is filling up with subject lines like: “Need your response now.” Oh, and you’re late for the team meeting that started five minutes ago. Does any of this sound familiar?

I hate to break it to you, but you aren’t unique in needing help with your productivity.

But there’s good news! Because there are so many of us who struggle, there are also a lot of systems and methods that have been created specifically to help us get out of our own heads and start making progress.

Dwight David "Ike" Eisenhower
Dwight David "Ike" Eisenhower

One of those systems is called the Eisenhower Matrix. It helps you categorize your tasks by how urgent and important they are, thus helping you automatically sort your most critical tasks to the top of your to-do list. It’s a simple and straightforward system that might very well save you from wasting valuable time.

The origins of the matrix

Dwight Eisenhower was President of the United States from 1953 to 1961. He was a highly productive human being. He launched several programs that changed the course of history, and he served as a five-star army general, the President of Columbia University, and Supreme Commander of NATO.

What Is Important Is Seldom Urgent and What Is Urgent Is Seldom Important - Dwight D. Eisenhower

You can imagine how many critical decisions he must have had to make throughout his lifetime. And on top of that, he was known for being optimistic and positive.

With all his expertise in efficiency and time management, he was able to engineer a strategy (which we call the Eisenhower Matrix) to help himself — and now others — make decisions in a more straightforward and simplified manner. Seeing as how he was able to get quite a lot done, it’s worth a shot to give his productivity method a try. In fact, his matrix was even endorsed and made popular by Stephen Covey in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

The Eisenhower Matrix explained

The matrix is based on two core concepts: importance and urgency.

They seem like synonyms at first glance — perhaps interchangeable terms — but they are in fact quite different.

Importance refers to how much a task moves us forward in achieving a long-term goal or mission.

Urgency refers to how quickly something has to get done or how “in the moment” it is. And urgency doesn’t always equal importance.

The categorization system is all about determining how urgent and how important tasks are on four levels. The matrix itself is a square box, divided into four quadrants, and the idea is to organize your tasks into one of the quadrants based on those two guidelines.

Eisenhower Matrix - Copyright Wikipedia

The top left quadrant is Important and Urgent. These are tasks that will go at the top of your priority list.

You will do those tasks right away. They are important for the bigger picture, and they have a deadline coming up. Perhaps it’s finishing a proposal to submit to a client that you want to acquire. (Important because your goal is to grow your business. Urgent because it was promised by tomorrow.)

Or if we’re talking about your personal life, perhaps it’s calling the plumber about your broken kitchen sink. (Important because you want to live in a comfortable house and use your kitchen. Urgent because you can’t wash your dirty dishes until it’s fixed.)

The top right quadrant is Important and Not Urgent. These are tasks you can do later.

They have value and will move you towards your goals, but they don’t need to be done right away. You can schedule them into your calendar to be tackled at another time. This might be a brainstorm session for new ideas for next month’s project or planning the menu for an annual dinner party you’re hosting in a few weeks.

The bottom left quadrant is Not Important and Urgent. These are tasks you should delegate.

They have to be dealt with in a timely manner, but they aren’t moving you towards your greater mission so they don’t deserve to eat up your time. This might be answering phone calls or cleaning the leaves out of the gutter. You can outsource these kinds of tasks and focus your energy on those top left quadrant tasks.

The bottom right quadrant is Not Important and Not Urgent. You shouldn’t do these tasks at all.

You should delete them from your list altogether. They don’t contribute to your goals in any way, and no one is expecting it from you. They simply don’t need to be done. Maybe you’ve had on your list for months to organize and color code the archived files on your hard drive. But it won’t impact anything in the future and no one really cares if it gets done, including you. It’s okay to take it off your plate.

Putting the system into practice

Every task on your master to-do list should go through this system. Now, if you’re thinking, “Umm… what master to-do list?” then we should take a step back. Because you need to start by taking all the things in your head and writing them down. What are all the things you need to do, want to do, might do today? What are the projects in your head that you aren’t quite sure about but should decide on? Get all this stuff out of your head and onto a list. This is your master list.

Now you can move forward with the matrix and start organizing. For each item on the list, ask yourself:

  • Is it important?
  • Is it urgent?

Ideally, these are yes or no questions. For the purpose of this productivity method, there really is no in-between. The good thing about this is that it forces you to choose and doesn’t really let you be ambivalent. (If you think about this system coming from a President and army general, that makes perfect sense!)

If it helps you to draw out the visual, you could take a piece of letter-sized paper and fold it in half twice to get those four boxes. Then you can label them according to quadrant and write in each task where it belongs. Or you could simply type the four categories into your note system and — as you move through each task on your list — copy and paste it into the correct category.

Once they are organized, you simply delete (or throw in the trash) quadrant four. You choose how to delegate or outsource the quadrant three tasks. And you put the quadrant two tasks in your calendar for a later date. Then you can dive into taking action on quadrant one tasks. You could do this daily, weekly, or monthly. It’s a scalable system that can work wonders by practically choosing your priorities for you.

How to know what’s important?

Urgent might be easy to figure out. “Do I need to do this now?” But important can sometimes be harder to gauge. If you can’t see the bigger picture and if you haven’t set goals or created a mission, then you will have a hard time deciding the true importance level of a task.

Take a step back and focus on establishing or identifying your values, mission, and overall goals. Yes, these are relevant to the business world. But they are also relevant in your personal life. So no matter which area you are focused on, ask yourself (and your team, if applicable) these questions:

  • What are the core values? What truly matters to me/us (in work or in life)?
  • What is my/our mission? What is my/our purpose and what impact do I/we want to have?
  • What are the goals I/we have for the year? For the month? Are they in line with my/our values and mission?

Once you have a clear picture of all three of these things, choosing the importance level for your matrix categorization will be so much easier. You will have a clear roadmap to identifying the most important tasks and recognizing which ones don’t belong on your list at all.

The bottom line

The Eisenhower Matrix is simple. It doesn’t allow for uncertainty or “maybes” when it comes to urgency or importance.

If you are having a hard time with it, try zooming out to your values/mission/goals analysis. If you still get stuck, try modifying the system to your needs. Maybe there is a middle ground between 100% important and 0% important.

Remember, no two human beings are exactly alike, and therefore no system is going to work for all of the humans out there. Productivity methods can be adjusted. And if it doesn’t work for you, there are plenty of others out there to try. But at the end of the day, the method built by a former world leader and time management genius is definitely worth a shot.