The Eisenhower Matrix

Dwight David Eisenhower the 34th President of the United States of. As President he founded the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to foster space exploration including the Apollo Moon landing mission. He is considered to be one of the most outstanding Presidents of the United States.


What is the matrix all about?

As a leader and a man of authority, Eisenhower was faced with numerous tasks, all begging for his attention. He developed this matrix which was his way of deciding what his point of action will be. The basis of this unique matrix was to develop a method of efficiently – and not just effectively- managing time, buy prioritizing the most important tasks that cumulatively results in a productive and fulfilled day, week, year and even life. People go about their daily lives constantly joggling from one activity to the other, it is common to hear people say” there is no time”. And while this may be true for a few cases, the actual issue is the inability to properly manage time to achieve individual set goals. From the eyes of Eisenhower, things are either important or urgent hence the matrix is a permutation of the possible ways these two events can play out.


A closer look at the matrix

The matrix is made up of four quadrants or boxes, each representing a particular event.

  • First Quadrant: Urgent and Important
  • Second Quadrant: Important but not Urgent
  • Third Quadrant: Not Important but Urgent
  • Fourth Quadrant: Not Important, not Urgent



So, what is the significance of the quadrants and what do they represent?

Imagine a scenario, you are on the phone with your significant other who is away, you got caught up in the conversation and forgot to turn off the gas cooker. Now we have a smoky situation, the fire alarm is blaring and suddenly you find yourself in a chaotic environment. Get the picture? In that moment, there is an urgency to restore calm to the situation to prevent further chaos. This scenario fits into the first quadrant of the matrix, it is both important and urgent. The gas cooker needs to be turned off, windows opened, alarm turned off too and you certainly need to catch your breath.  Activities in the first quadrant cannot be put off, they are stressors and need to be handled immediately. Urgent and important activities may come in the form of last-minute preparation for a presentation, medical emergencies, thesis submission deadline, car failure or an assignment from a superior.

To manage the chaotic situation at hand, you had to get off the phone probably with a last message of “I’ll call you later”. That call to your significant other was important, but certainly not urgent. This belongs to the second quadrant of important but not urgent, meaning that call can be made at any other time or postponed. It is important to note that the activities in this quadrant are actually the most important and fulfilling things in the life of an individual and if effectively managed, can reduce the number of activities in the first quadrant; they are long-term activities hence, plenty of time must be allotted to these activities. Examples includes exercising, family events, date night, preparing for a professional exam, personal development, learning a new skill.

An unannounced visit from your friends when preparing for a mid-term is not important but urgent. You need to attend to them, tell some stories, have a drink and unwind. The activities in this third quadrant generally affects your relationship with other people, by continuously obliging them, you are a “nice person” but at the expense of your time. These activities in no way propels you towards achieving personal goals, but the goals of others. Examples are lengthy phone calls, attending to favour requests from people, responding to emails that are not important, interruptions.

Finally, the fourth quadrant of not important and not urgent. In a world of smart phones and Instagram, it is easy to just click and scroll endlessly and aimlessly. The activities of this quadrant are time wasters. There is really no tangible benefit from participating in them. Examples includes watching television series, playing video games, endless chatting, web surfing, excessive sleeping habit, football arguments, partying with friends, gambling.


Application of the Eisenhower matrix quadrants

First quadrant

Evaluate the situation, can things run smoothly without your involvement? Well for this quadrant, the answer is usually no. Avoid procrastination of these activities. Like Nike, “Just do it’.

Second quadrant

To master this quadrant, an individual must decide what aspects of his/her life are truly important, what are his/her value system?  Family? Career? Friends? Adventure? What is his/her current inclination? The answers will determine how to apportion time to the various activities lined up.

After deciding what the priorities are, scheduling is one major way to effectively handle this quadrant. Plan, Plan, Plan!!! Plan ahead of time and carry out task in the order of the highest priority. In preparing for an exam have a timetable for reading, have a specific day of the week set aside for date night with your spouse and another for family time with the kids. Wake up at a specific time and meditate when it is still quiet, make time for routine car maintenance. Note that scheduling doesn’t have to be so rigid, make provision for unseen contingencies. The key here is to avoid surprises as much as possible.

Third quadrant

Since this quadrant has little or no contribution to your goals and effectiveness, delegate them. Look for others who are equally capable of handling the situation. Also, learn to say “no” firmly.

Fourth quadrant

These activities can go. However, if the second quadrant is being effectively managed, then a controlled amount of the activities in this quadrant can be introduced as a way of blowing out steam after a long day. But the condition here is that productivity must have already been attained.

The entire goal of using this matrix is to achieve more within the same period of time. A few suggestions on how to be more productive are listed below.

  • Create a To-Do List and arrange the various activities based on a scale of preference or order of priority. A To-Do List is important because there is a tendency to forget other important activities when you work from your memory, it also makes for rational planning and decision making.
  • Assign the tasks above to the various quadrants they fall into. Ensure to be objective and not sentimental about this. Be sincere about it bearing in mind that the goal here is towards your eventual progress.
  • To create a more workable matrix, have a matrix for your personal life and another for professional purpose. This way, it is easier to track how much progress is being made on both ends.
  • Introduce colours on the matrix. Nothing screams urgent and important as much as red does, but it is not a rule. Choose colours that speak to you or have personal significance.
  • Place the matrix where you can easily see it.
  • A goal is only a goal when there is a time frame attached to it. Set realistic deadlines especially for activities in quadrant two. One way to seriously stick to a deadline is to attach rewards or consequences to it.
  • Be accountable to a superior or mentor, not necessarily your boss at work, but anyone you judge capable of holding you responsible to fulfilling your tasks.


Differences between Urgent and Important.

Eisenhower believed that “what is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.” This is the principle that he lived by and judging from his record as a two-time President of the United States and an Army General, it is worth considering. Following this logic, there are only two kinds of events- the urgent and the important.

Urgent refers to task that must be handled immediately. They literally scream “NOW!” thus demanding instant reaction. They are mostly short-term oriented tasks which play little roles in the overall performance of an individual.  Things like a ringing telephone, meeting up with deadlines and so on.

Important refers to the very key aspects of life that contributes to the overall well-being of a person. These are the things that truly matter and leads to the actualization of the long-term goal of a person. For example, reading a book on self-development, taking a professional course, spending time with family and many others.

The bone of contention now is determining which activities are important and which are urgent.  It is common for people to miss-judge the urgent task as important because of the haste associated with them and this singular act is the reason for low productivity and turn over both personally and professionally.

Before a clear line of difference can be drawn, a person who truly seeks to be effective will have to set priorities straight, determine what his/her goals are and then be focused on the road to achieving it. Only then can he/she truly manage the resource of time in choosing between urgent and important tasks.

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