Do you ever feel like your work just piles on and nothing gets done? When you start your workday and look at your to-do list, what thoughts run through your mind? Is it close to something like, “How am I going to get ALL of this done?” If your answer is yes, I’d bet you felt defeated that day and might have probably missed crossing out some items on your list. When overwhelm consumes you, focus gets thrown out the door. Overwhelm is a negative emotion that when you allow it to creep in, you’ll spend your day unproductive and feeling heavy.
I’ve felt the same way so many times before. And then I learned about this tool called the Eisenhower matrix. It made me realize that the problem lies in how I manage and prioritize my tasks. As I started using it, I became more confident in performing my work each day.
Common Signs That You’re Doing Task Management Wrong
Productivity depends on effective task management. It lies in how you manage your time, energy, and focus. The first step in task management is planning and prioritizing your tasks. This is what’s usually lacking in people who do task management wrong.
When you don’t plan and prioritize your tasks properly, you’ll most likely feel any or a combination of the following:
- You think that all your tasks are important and urgent
- You wish there were more hours in a day
- You have so much to do but don’t know where to start
- Your to-do list just keeps on growing no matter how many tasks you tick off
- You don’t know where your time went after a long day
The uncertainty of where you put your time, energy, and focus on brings in feelings of overwhelm, discontent, and loads of stress. These can be avoided if you plan and prioritize your tasks effectively. The imperative word is “effectively”. And how would you plan and prioritize effectively you might ask? Meet the Eisenhower Matrix.
What is the Eisenhower Matrix?
If the name rings a bell, it’s because the Eisenhower Matrix was named after the 34th president of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower. Before his presidency, Eisenhower served as a general in the US Army. He was also the Allied Forces Supreme Commander during World War II. Working in a high-pressure environment, he had to make tough calls and ensure that he focuses his time, energy and attention on what matters most at a specific point in time. This led him to develop a principle to prioritize tasks by importance and urgency. Eisenhower believed that for optimum results, we should focus our time, energy, and attention based on their importance and urgency.
Renowned educator and businessman, Stephen Covey, creator and author of the 7 Habits for Highly Effective People, repackaged the Eisenhower principles and created a tool for task prioritization and planning. The Eisenhower Matrix became an invaluable tool for decision-making, time management, and project planning. It’s also called the Important-Urgent Matrix, Time Management Matrix, or the Eisenhower Box.
How to Use the Eisenhower Matrix in Prioritizing Your Tasks
The Eisenhower Matrix has four quadrants which are characterized by their level of importance and urgency. First, let’s define what important and urgent means in the context of task management.
Urgent tasks require your immediate attention. These tasks immediately catch your attention but don’t necessarily mean they need to be dealt with right away. They sometimes come in the form of high-pressure situations or mundane tasks.
Important tasks contribute to your medium and long-term goals. These tasks are building blocks to achieving your vision and life purpose but they don’t have a fixed deadline, at least not yet. Some important tasks may escalate in urgency as well. So it’s important to plan these tasks ahead of time and follow through your plan.
Let’s discuss the four quadrants.
Quadrant 1 – Do It Now
Quadrant 1 of the Eisenhower matrix contains tasks that are both important and urgent. These types of tasks need to be done immediately or it may have adverse effects if the situation prolongs. Here are some examples of tasks that fall under this quadrant:
- Major rework due to defects
- Time-sensitive deliverables
- Deadline-driven projects and activities
As you can imagine, quadrant 1 tasks are high-pressure situations and are very stressful. Majority of quadrant tasks often happen due to procrastination. This means that they can be avoided with proper planning. You don’t want to work on your project at the very last minute. If you’ve been doing so in the past, now’s the time to change things up.
Spend less time in this quadrant as much as possible. You don’t want to be constantly putting out fires.
Quadrant 2 – Plan and Schedule
The 2nd quadrant in the Eisenhower Matrix is the zone where you should be spending most of your time on. Quadrant 2 tasks directly contribute to your personal and professional growth. Activities and tasks that fall under this quadrant are related to the following:
- Relationship building
- Exploring new opportunities
- Personal growth
- Productive recreation
These activities are tied to your professional and personal goals. So this means, quadrant 2 tasks may be different for each person.
Quadrant 3 – Delegate It
The 3rd quadrant in the Eisenhower Matrix contains tasks that can be deceiving at the onset. They are deceptive because they are masked by this sense of urgency but with closer inspection, you’ll realize that they are unimportant. Take the following examples:
- Doing other people’s tasks
- Meeting other people’s expectations
- Frequent interruptions
- Some emails and calls
- Too many meetings
You only have a finite amount of time and a set amount of energy. Some quadrant 3 tasks may be related to your work, but it doesn’t mean you have to do them right away. It also doesn’t mean that you’re the only one who can do it. If you’re in a position to delegate tasks when working with a team, take that opportunity. Focus on what you do best and employ other hands to help. Set aside a specific schedule to handle emails and calls. Minimize interruptions and distractions so you can rise through the clutter.
Quadrant 4 – Eliminate the Wastes
Some tasks are plain time-wasters. These tasks lie on the 4th quadrant of the Eisenhower matrix. They are neither important nor urgent. Spending time doing tasks that fall on this quadrant will only take away the time you could have spent on doing quadrant 1 and 2 tasks, which are the most important. So be careful not to fall into this trap. Some examples of quadrant 4 tasks or activities include:
- Binge-watching on movies or TV series
- Escapist activities
- Gossip and mindless chatter
- Sorting through junk mail
- Trivial work
It’s not to say that you can’t watch some Netflix shows now and then. There’s a time for everything as long as you do it in moderation. Don’t let these activities interfere with your dedicated time for productive work.
Putting it All Together
If this is the first time you’ll do any sort of planning for your workday, start by identifying what tasks you need or want to accomplish within the day. List them down. Next step is to assess the importance and urgency level of each task and plot them in their corresponding quadrant in the Eisenhower Matrix. Once you’re done, if you have any quadrant 1 tasks and get to those first, followed by your quadrant 2 tasks. If you have any quadrant 3 tasks that you need to delegate, plan on when you’ll be communicating those tasks to its assignees. Make sure that you set aside time to check-in with your team for any tasks delegated to them to avoid any tasks from escalating in urgency. Do this exercise for a week and see the results. Observe how it affects your behavior and overall experience at work. You can also try planning your tasks weekly with a daily review at the start of each day for adjustments.
The Eisenhower Matrix is only a tool for planning and prioritization. The execution and its success will still lie on your hands. As long as you’re disciplined and focused in putting your plans in motion, you should reap the benefits of using this tool.
Why You Should Prioritize Your Tasks
Proper task prioritization and management has many benefits but here are the top three ones for me.
Efficiency is gauged at how you manage to achieve your goals and objectives with the limited resources you’re given. You have a limited amount of time and energy. You must focus on using your resources on tasks that give you the greatest ROI. Prioritizing your tasks using the Eisenhower matrix helps you weed out the wasteful tasks that will prevent you from maximizing your ROI.
When you prioritize your tasks properly, the more important matters surface to the top and unimportant ones take the back seat. The Eisenhower matrix helps make it clear what you should be spending your time on. And when you have more time to do productive work instead of being trapped by unimportant matters, you will accomplish more with the time you’re given. You will also realize that you have enough time for the things you need and want to accomplish.
Overcome Procrastination to Reduce Stress
Using the Eisenhower matrix pushes you to be one step ahead. It sets the right mindset and tone before you start the workday. It allows you to schedule your deliverables with ample time to work on them. This prevents those nasty feelings of overwhelm and saves you from procrastinating.
Better Task and Time Management with the Eisenhower Matrix
As Stephen Covey said, “I am not a product of my circumstances. I am a product of my decisions.” Today, I encourage you to take control of how your day will go. Stop spending too much time on what’s urgent and start focusing on what’s important. Take courage in saying “no” to time wasters and distractions, and shout a resounding “YES!” to tasks that empower you and help you grow. You need to be clear on what your highest priorities are and use the Eisenhower matrix as your compass towards achievement and success.