How I use the Eisenhower matrix to figure out what to work on

Written on February 21, 2021

Everyone is special, Dash

Which is another way of saying that no one is.

– A conversation from the movie, The Incredibles between Dash and Helen Parr.

Isn’t it funny that sometimes the things we need to get done tend to feel like the dialogue above?

That when you look at your list of tasks to get done in a day and they are all screaming at you, “I’m special, work on me next. No, I’m special, check me out!”.

Right, tasks don’t really talk. But if left unchecked and you dive into your work, simply letting each “special” task dictate your day.

You might end up at the end of the day feeling like you were busy, but didn’t really get anything meaningful done.

I know I’ve been there.

To help with this, I’ve been employing what’s called the Eisenhower matrix to surface the what I should be working on each day.

The Eisenhower matrix, is a simple two-by-two matrix.

Graphic for the Eisenhower matrix

In the top left hand quadrant is where things that are both important and urgent go. These are the time-sensitive and important work that needs to get done ASAP. Perhaps you have a proposal that needs to get on your boss’ desk today and so you need to wrap it up and send it over.

In the top right hand quadrant is where things are important but not urgent. Let’s say you’ve got a project you’ve been working on at work and you have a whole quarter to work on it. It is important, but that due date is quite off from today.

This quadrant is where you’ll want to pay close attention to and make sure to schedule tasks into your calendar regularly.

In the bottom left hand quadrant, these are the urgent, but not important tasks. There’s a time constraint on these tasks—say if you’re a developer and work in set sprint intervals—that must get done by a certain time. But the value you’re able to provide at this very moment are higher in other tasks than these.

It might be better to ask others if they can help take things off your plate and delegate so you can focus on the work in the first two quadrants.

The last quadrant, the bottom right, are where tasks are both not urgent and not important. These are tasks you might’ve added at a particular time to your list of todos but now reviewing it isn’t important or relevant anymore.

These tasks you’ll want to delete and remove completely.

Don’t spend too much time, just sort

The point of using the Eisenhower isn’t to spend too much time, but to simply sort the tasks and figure out what to work on.

If you find yourself getting stuck, follow what your gut says on a task and move on.

The first time you’re using the matrix you might have a lot of tasks to weed through so you might find yourself spending 30 minutes or so. But once you regularly use the Eisenhower matrix, you’ll be able to breeze through it fairly quickly depending on the number of tasks you’ve got in there.

How I’ve set up the Eisenhower matrix in my task manager

For my personal task manager, I use an app on macOS called, Things. Within Things, they let you set up a list which is made up of headings and tasks called, a project.

I’ve set up a project called the Eisenhower matrix, and it is just a list with headings that represent each of the quadrants like this.

A project in Things set up for the Eisenhower matrix

Each end of day or end of week, I’ll dump all my tasks into this designated list—which then nicely shows up above all the headings.

All tasks at top

Then one-by-one I’ll move each task quickly into the sections that I believe they belong.

Tasks assigned to a quadrant

Tasks in quadrant four, I can simply remove.

Tasks in quadrant three, I’ll ask someone to help with taking over the task.

Tasks in quadrant two, I’ll move them into specific days in the upcoming week.

Tasks in quadrant one, I’ll put in my very next work day.

Benefits of using the Eisenhower matrix

Since using the Eisenhower matrix, I’ve found that I’m able to focus on tasks and work that helps move the needle forward.

It also helps me fight the issues of decision paralysis that sometimes takes way too much energy out of my day.

It reduces anxiety because it forces me to be real with myself. While there might be a lot of things that needs to get done. The matrix forces me to confront that I don’t need to do everything and I don’t need to do everything right now.

Finally, it helps me get into the habit of decluttering. Have you ever noticed from time-to-time there are those tasks that tends to stick around on your todo list but don’t get done? It ends up taking head space and it screams at you that it needs your attention but for some reason, week-in and week-out it never gets done.

Well thanks to quadrant four—not important, not urgent—you can address it and the let go of those tasks and rid them of your attention so you can focus on work that’s meaningful.

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