The Eisenhower Decision Matrix: How to Distinguish Between Urgent and Important Tasks and Make Real Progress in Your Life

by Brett & Kate McKay on October 23, 2013 · 46 comments

in A Man's Life, Personal Development

eisenhower

Do you sometimes feel like you spend all your time managing crises? That your life is basically spent putting out one proverbial fire after another?

At the end of the day do you feel completely sapped and drained of energy, and yet can’t point to anything you accomplished of real significance?

Yes?

Then you, my friend, are probably confusing the urgent with the important.

We’ve talked before about the many leadership lessons that can be gleaned from the life of Dwight D. Eisenhower. Today we’re going to talk about another – a principle that guided him through his entire, hugely successful career as general and president:

“What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.”

Below we look into the distinction ol’ Ike made between those two very different things, and explore how understanding the “Eisenhower Decision Principle” can help you become the man you want to be.

The Difference Between Urgent and Important

Urgent means that a task requires immediate attention. These are the to-do’s that shout “Now!” Urgent tasks put us in a reactive mode, one marked by a defensive, negative, hurried, and narrowly-focused mindset.

Important tasks are things that contribute to our long-term mission, values, and goals. Sometimes important tasks are also urgent, but typically they’re not. When we focus on important activities we operate in a responsive mode, which helps us remain calm, rational, and open to new opportunities.

It’s a pretty intuitive distinction, yet most of us frequently fall into the trap of believing that all urgent activities are also important. This propensity likely has roots in our evolutionary history; our ancestors concentrated more on short-term concerns than long-term strategy, as tending to immediate stimuli (like a charging saber-toothed cat) could mean the difference between life and death.

Modern technologies (24-hour news, Twitter, Facebook, text messaging) that constantly bombard us with information have only heightened this deeply engrained mindset. Our stimulus-producing tech treats all information as equally urgent and pressing. Miley Cyrus’ Twerk-gate is given the same weight as important D.C. policy discussions.

We are, as author Douglas Rushkoff claims, experiencing “present shock” – a condition in which “we live in a continuous, always-on ‘now’” and lose our sense of long-term narrative and direction. In such a state, it is easy to lose sight of the distinction between the truly important and the merely urgent.

The consequences of this priority-blindness are both personal and societal. In our own lives, we suffer from burnout and stagnation, and on a broader level our culture is unable to solve the truly important problems of our time.

The Eisenhower Decision Matrix

Business thinker Stephen Covey popularized the Eisenhower’s Decision Principle in his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. In that book, Covey created a decision matrix to help individuals make the distinction between what’s important and not important and what’s urgent and not urgent. The matrix consists of a square divided into four boxes, or quadrants, labeled thusly: 1) Urgent/Important, 2) Not Urgent/Important, 3) Urgent/Not Important, and 4) Not Urgent/Not Important:

EisenhowerDecisionMatrix1

Below we go into detail about each quadrant and explain which one we should spend most of our time in if we wish to be our best and make the most of our lives.

Quadrant 1: Urgent and Important Tasks

Quadrant 1 tasks are both urgent and important. They’re tasks that require our immediate attention and also work towards fulfilling our long-term goals and missions in life.

Quadrant 1 tasks typically consist of crises, problems, or deadlines.

Here are a few specific examples of Urgent and Important tasks:

  • Certain emails (could be a job offer, an email for a new business opportunity that requires immediate action, etc.)
  • Term paper deadline
  • Tax deadline
  • Wife in emergency room
  • Car engine goes out
  • Household chores
  • You have a heart attack and end up in the hospital
  • You get a call from your kid’s principal saying you need to come in for a meeting about his behavior

With a bit of planning and organization, many Q1 tasks can be made more efficient or even eliminated outright. For example, instead of waiting until the last minute to work on a term paper (thus turning it into an urgent task), you could schedule your time so that you’re done with your paper a week in advance. Or instead of waiting for something in your house to fall apart and need fixing, you can follow a schedule of regular maintenance.

While we’ll never be able to completely eliminate urgent and important tasks, we can significantly reduce them with a bit of proactivity and by spending more time in Quadrant 2.

Which of course brings us to…

Quadrant 2: Not Urgent but Important Tasks

Quadrant 2 tasks are the activities that don’t have a pressing deadline, but nonetheless help you achieve your important personal, school, and work goals as well as help you fulfill your overall mission as a man.

Q2 tasks are typically centered around strengthening relationships, planning for the future, and improving yourself.

Here are some specific examples of Not Urgent but Important Tasks:

According to Covey, we should seek to spend most of our time on Q2 activities, as they’re the ones that provide us lasting happiness, fulfillment, and success. Unfortunately, there are a couple key challenges that keep us from investing enough time and energy into Q2 tasks:

  • You don’t know what’s truly important to you. If you don’t have any idea what values and goals matter most to you, you obviously won’t know what things you should be spending your time on to reach those aims! Instead, you’ll latch on to whatever stimuli and to-dos are most urgent. If you feel like you’re lacking a life’s mission or aren’t sure what your core values are, I highly recommend reading our articles on developing a life plan as well as defining your core values.
  • Present bias. As just discussed, we all have an inclination to focus on whatever is most pressing at the moment. Doing so is our default mode. It’s hard to get motivated to do something when there isn’t a deadline looming over our head. Departing from this fallback position takes willpower and self-discipline – qualities that don’t come naturally and must be actively cultivated and expressed.

Because Q2 activities aren’t pressing for our attention, we typically keep them forever on the backburner of our lives and tell ourselves, “I’ll get to those things ‘someday’ after I’ve taken care of this urgent stuff.” We even put off figuring out what’s most important in life, which of course only perpetuates a cycle where all we ever take care of are the most urgent to-dos on our list.

But “someday” will never come; if you’re waiting to do the important stuff until your schedule clears up a little, trust me when I say that it won’t. You’ll always feel about as busy as you are now, and if anything, life just gets busier as you get older (at least until you retire).

To overcome our inherent present-bias that prevents us from focusing on Quadrant 2 activities, we must live our lives intentionally and proactively. You can’t run your life in default mode. You have to consciously decide, “I’m going to make time for these things come hell or high water.”

Quadrant 3: Urgent and Not Important Tasks

Quadrant 3 tasks are activities that require our attention now (urgent), but don’t help us achieve our goals or fulfill our mission (not important). Most Q3 tasks are interruptions from other people and often involve helping them meet their own goals and fulfill their own priorities.

Here are some specific examples of Quadrant 3 activities:

  • Phone calls
  • Text messages
  • Most emails (some emails could be urgent and important)
  • Co-worker who comes by your desk during your prime working time to ask a favor
  • Request from a former employee to write a letter of recommendation on his behalf (it’s probably important to him, but let’s face it, it’s probably not that important to you)
  • Mom drops in unannounced and wants your help with a chore

According to Covey, many people spend most of their time on Q3 tasks, all the while thinking they’re working in Q1. Because Q3 tasks do help others out, they definitely feel important. Plus they’re also usually tangible tasks, the completion of which gives you that sense of satisfaction that comes from checking something off your list.

But while Q3 tasks may be important to others, they’re not important to you. They’re not necessarily bad, but they need to be balanced with your Q2 activities. Otherwise, you’ll end up feeling like you’re getting a lot done from day-to-day, while eventually realizing that you’re not actually making any progress in your own long-term goals. That’s a recipe for personal frustration and resentment towards other people.

Men who spend most of their time working on Urgent but Not Important Tasks often suffer from “Nice Guy Syndrome,” and want to constantly please others at the expense of their own happiness.

If that’s you, the solution is simple: Become more assertive and start to firmly (but politely) say no to most requests.

Quadrant 4: Not Urgent and Not Important Tasks

Quadrant 4 activities aren’t urgent and aren’t important. They’re what I like to call “dicking around” activities. Q4 activities aren’t pressing nor do they help you achieve long-term goals or fulfill your mission as a man. They’re primarily distractions.

Specific examples of Not Urgent and Not Important Tasks include:

  • Watching TV
  • Mindlessly surfing the web
  • Playing video games
  • Scrolling through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram
  • Gambling
  • Shopping sprees

I think if most of us did a time audit on ourselves, we’d find that we spend an inordinate amount of time on Q4 activities. I’m sure most of us have those “I’m wasting my life” moments after we’ve spent hours surfing the web and realize we could have used that time to pursue our more ennobling life goals. No? That’s just me? Dang.

As a pragmatist, I don’t think you need to eliminate Q4 activities altogether from your life. After a particularly hectic and busy day, randomly browsing the internet or watching a favorite TV show for a half hour is exactly what my brain needs to decompress.

Instead of aiming to completely rid yourself of Not Urgent and Not Important tasks, try to only spend a very limited amount of time on them. 5% or less of your waking hours is a good goal.

Be Like Ike; Spend More Time on Important Tasks

In our present shock world, the ability to filter the signal from the noise, or distinguish between what’s urgent and what’s truly important, is an essential skill to have.

My challenge to you this week is to apply the Eisenhower Decision Matrix to as many aspects of your life as you can. When faced with a decision, stop and ask yourself, “Am I doing this because it’s important or am I doing it because it’s merely urgent?”

I promise as you spend most of your time working on Not Urgent but Important tasks, you’ll feel a renewed sense of calm, control, and composure in your life. You’ll feel like you’re making real progress. By investing your time in Q2’s planning/organizing activities, you can prevent and eliminate many of the crises and problems of Q1, balance the requests of Q3 with your own needs, and truly enjoy the veg-outs of Q4, knowing that you’ve earned the rest. By making Q2 tasks your top priority, no matter the emergency, annoyance, or deadline you’re hit with, you’ll have the mental, emotional, and physical wherewithal to respond positively, rather than react defensively.

Tools to Help You

To help you apply the Eisenhower Decision Matrix, we suggest checking out the following tools.

Eisenhower App. This is an iPhone app that allows you to easily organize your task according to the Eisenhower Decision Matrix. I had a chance to play around with it a bit and liked what I saw. Haven’t been able to find anything similar for Android.

Download the Eisenhower Decision Matrix Worksheet. I created a snazzy little PDF of the Eisenhower Decision Matrix available to download for free. Print one out tonight and set aside 30 minutes for personal reflection. Make a list of the tasks you spend most of your time on and assign them to an appropriate quadrant in the matrix. Doing so will give you a rough idea of whether you’re spending time on activities that are actually important.

After you do that, think of ways you can reduce the amount of time you spend on Q1, Q3, and Q4 tasks and increase the amount of time you spend on Q2 activities.

{ 46 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Kevin Hernández October 23, 2013 at 9:32 pm

Really interesting as always Brett, Kate.
Thank you
Greetings from Venezuela

2 Michel October 23, 2013 at 10:03 pm

Very nice indeed. Thanks for the nice tips.
Greetings from Brazil

3 Tim October 23, 2013 at 10:14 pm

Long-time reader, first-time commenter: This might be the finest AOM entry ever. Very interesting and USEFUL insights.

4 bernard kayes October 23, 2013 at 10:37 pm

an excellent article on managing your time. I highly recommend it.

5 Jarrod CL October 23, 2013 at 10:39 pm

Now all I need to do is convince all of my coworkers and their managers and my managers of this!

6 Angela October 23, 2013 at 11:25 pm

I love this site. I learn way more about how to live and be a better woman on AofM than I do from women’s magazines. Keep up the good work, you two!

7 Dr Boatman October 24, 2013 at 12:28 am

Sitting here, filing in for someone else at work whose job is essentially managing crises and putting out proverbial fires, this article came at just the right time. Thanks so much, guys!

8 Vincent Tang October 24, 2013 at 2:55 am

Great article! I remember learning about this decision matrix in one of my communication classes in college and this just brought me right back. Thanks for the quick refresher!

9 bruce egert October 24, 2013 at 6:32 am

It is urgent and important for all to read this post

10 Herzegovina October 24, 2013 at 6:35 am

Very interesting and very instructive.

Thank you, and good job !

11 Mark October 24, 2013 at 8:36 am

Great reminder of a class long since taken! Thanks.

BTW, there is a web version of the app you linked too. Quick bookmark on my Android and I was good to go. Not as ‘functional’ as the iPhone app but better than having to write my own. ;-)

12 Albert October 24, 2013 at 8:52 am

I have already read many of your post and I can confidently say that this site is amazing! Nice way of returning to the good ol´ values!

Congratulations from Chile!

13 Will October 24, 2013 at 8:57 am

I think you’ll want to check out “Priority Matrix”, by Appfluence. (www.appfluence.com)

I found that app and it seems to have gotten great reviews, although it seemed straight forward, the details were lacking, or maybe it was my own understanding of the matrix.

Thank you so much for this article. I was looking on how to best use it. Ahhh, now I can start working my Q2.

14 josh_k October 24, 2013 at 9:40 am

I see a lot of teens and young men wasting their lives on Q4. Video games and Netflix seem to consume just inordinate amounts of time. And then I see a lot of guys in their 20s and 30s wasting their lives on Q3. There’s the constant stream of emails and minor projects and the continual posturing to convince everyone that you’re as capable as the next guy.

Lately I’ve been trying to spend more time on Q2 activities. One for me is art. I have had to tell myself on several occasions that I’m not wasting time just because I’m not doing something urgent. I’m honing my skills.

Thanks for the post. It’s a good reminder that I’m not crazy.

15 Scott C October 24, 2013 at 9:43 am

I read about this In 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I have employed this decision matrix in college life and it has helped me put first things first as far as academics goes.

16 Agnes October 24, 2013 at 10:39 am

I’ve heard this before, but the specific examples given for each quadrant were a kick in the pants! (Maybe someone can explain to me how a nineteen-year-old girl can find so many items from her own to-do lists in this one article? :-))

17 Joseph October 24, 2013 at 10:55 am

Thank you Brett! and Kate! Great article!

18 Jacob October 24, 2013 at 11:18 am

Order out of Chaos. From one of the best, Dwight D. Eisenhower.

19 Kenneth Lange October 24, 2013 at 12:52 pm

Thanks for this great article on such an interesting topic!

I really enjoyed the rich examples in the article, but I’m not sure that watching television for a half hour after a hectic day is a Q4 activity (i.e. waste of time); I’d say that it’s really a Q2 activity (recreation)… Sure, there are better recreational activities, like running, but still…

20 Hai October 24, 2013 at 12:59 pm

Priority Matrix (the software) is probably the best implementation of the Eisenhower Matrix because it’s actually 4-quadrants. You should consider it for the tools that could help you.

21 Gabriel Matias October 24, 2013 at 2:34 pm

Look for Eisentasks for a similar app in android.

22 Dave October 24, 2013 at 3:40 pm

I haven’t used it yet, but I was able to find “MyEffectivenessHabits Todo GTD” for Android

23 Ben Feikema October 24, 2013 at 4:02 pm

Here’s a question for you guys; I have a friend who has struggled with huge emotional mood swings and depression for the last few months, but especially the last 3 weeks. This friend calls several times a week and expects me to talk for 45 minutes or more. I want to help this friend with their depression, but I find that it’s really taking a toll on my productivity. I’ve tried setting aside 2 or 3 days a week that we can talk for long periods of time, but that hasn’t worked and I end up getting accused of being selfish. Any advice?

24 David October 24, 2013 at 4:45 pm

I had given up video games long ago since they were such a time waster. Recently I’ve done a lot of studying on our brain, took one of the Great Courses on brain optimization (love the Great Courses by the way), and have learned that studies are showing video games in moderation are good for the brain. I didn’t believe it at first and so I’ve spent more time researching it. The trick is not getting addicted. I’m curious what others think that if done within moderation could be considered a Q2 or “Sharpening the Saw” mental type of activity.

25 GranTorino October 24, 2013 at 8:49 pm

Brett, Is the Eisenhower poster available for sale (the decision maker quadrant)?

26 Kramii October 25, 2013 at 3:57 am

Someone once told me that Q4 is “the refuge of a weary soul” – a comment that helped me understand my own behaviour on more than one occasion.

27 Reinhard von Lohengramm October 25, 2013 at 6:01 am

Possibly one of the best articles on AoM.
Thanks, Brett!

28 Boommen October 25, 2013 at 7:53 am

Very useful article. Helped be to analyze where I am spending most of my time. By default I am in Q3 and Q4. All of a sudden all my Q2 tasks move to Q1. Then I am in firefighting mode.
Thanks for this valuable insight

29 Mike October 25, 2013 at 2:47 pm

This was just what I needed to read. Thanks! By the way, your kids are so lucky to have you as parents!

30 Josh October 26, 2013 at 12:19 am

Twerk-gate! That was funny.

31 Sean October 27, 2013 at 11:20 pm

After reading this a few days ago, I’ve started to implement this quadrant thing into my own life, and it has definitely helped.

What was even cooler was that I had an interview with Apple today and one of the questions I was asked “describe a time when you were overwhelmed, and how did you manage your responsibilities” or something to that effect. And this quadrant thing was the PERFECT answer to that question. So thank you for this article.

32 Fernando Martinez October 28, 2013 at 4:50 pm

Excellent post Brett, always enjoy your articles, greetings from Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia !!

33 Benny October 29, 2013 at 11:11 am

Great article!

There is also an Outlook add-in that allow managing tasks according to Eisenhower Matrix right in the Outlook: http://www.taskcracker.com/taskcracker-for-outlook/

34 Koos November 1, 2013 at 3:32 am

Nice one Benny!

Those without Outlook may be interested in Prioritizer for Mac/Windows. I made it because I wanted to have an Eisenhower Matrix on my desktop. It’s for free, no strings attached: http://www.getprioritizer.com

35 Nate November 3, 2013 at 7:42 am

This has played an important role in my work-life since reading coveys book. I have used the franklin covey planner for years. I wish there would be an app for my tablet that would work exactly like the planner.

36 Lani Rosales November 4, 2013 at 10:55 am

Thank you so much for sharing, this is awesome!!

“Plans are nothing; planning is everything.” ~Dwight D. Eisenhower

37 Isaac Samuelson November 11, 2013 at 9:22 am

I love this post. Very practical information.

38 Manuel November 20, 2013 at 1:13 am

Great article. I’m currently in my second year of law school. After reading this, I couldn’t resist the urge to evaluate what I do throughout the week to ensure I’m working on those things that’ll allow me achieve long term worth, happiness, and growth. Thank you.

39 Dilip Kamat December 25, 2013 at 11:15 pm

This article is about the great practical Time Management tool that is available to all of us. What is required is passion and zeal to follow these quadrants on daily basis to avoid frustration and invite happiness and long term worth and of course growth.
Greetings from India

40 Bruce December 27, 2013 at 3:02 pm

Great article. I think it does a great job of explaining the four quadrants. I studied Covey long ago. While this has sort of fallen out of fashion in the leadership world, it is solid advice and it is good to see it revived. However, after more than 15 years of practicing and trying to improve myself, I’ve become frustrated that people I work with (and many business practices) focus on Urgent/Not important work. Emails from the boss, demands from outside sources, crisis of information that was delayed, etc, etc. It is so easy for people to send an email and expect an immediate reply. We expect people to drop everything and respond. But I can get 100 emails a day, each with something “Urgent.” I try to balance the bosses demands for Urgent/Not Important with Important/Not Urgent. But unless someone is screaming that the world is going to come to an end immediately, then it gets second shelf. I can present important ideas, but they don’t get acted on unless someone needs it now. And items that are good for the long term tend to go back to the “this is good, we need to have a conversation about this and think it through.” It can be disheartening in a business. The only way to counter it is to keep working on the Important work little by little. Usually, if you do it right, then it never becomes urgent. But then people don’t tend to notice because it looks like it was easy. Important work can have huge payoffs with creating real change, hopefully for the better. It is tough. But who said being manly was supposed to be easy? Thanks for the post!

41 Salmon Mcdonald January 31, 2014 at 10:53 pm

Very inspirational indeed.Thanks from Jamaica West indies.

42 BJL February 11, 2014 at 2:15 pm

@Ben Feikema

The key is not to be reactive but rather pro-active in managing the situation. In stead of worrying about when he will call and then about how to cut him short, rather set up some time to chat with him when it suits you.

If you gym or exercise I would recommend that you could even set up a regular gym session with your buddy. The exercise will lift his mood and slowly but surely pull him out of his depression while not taking any additional time from your busy schedule.

The key to making this work is to let your bud know that you are really busy during office hours, but that you would like to spend time with him to talk things over (and that this is the best time you could find to do so).

Perhaps also put your phone on silent during office hours and screen his calls – he will soon accept that it is of no use to bother you during office hours.

43 BJL February 11, 2014 at 2:30 pm

I use the Eisenhower Decision Matrix (EDM) principles in combination with MS Outlook tasks:
Q1 = High Priority
Q2 = Medium Priority
Q3 = Low Priority

I don’t schedule Q4 since it is basically a waste of time to plan for activities of no urgency or importance.

In addition, I start each week with a weekly planning session during which I list all the tasks I can think of, categorise them according to the EDM, and schedule the execution thereof on my Outlook calender.

Specifically, for Q2 (important but not urgent) tasks, like research or self-study, I often schedule recurring blocks of time.

Each morning I dedicate 30 minutes to revise and update my planning. I find that this ritual sets the tone for the day and keeps me focused.

Other tricks I use to minimise distractions:
1. Turn of email notifications and popups. I set my email client to only send/receive emails every 4 hours in order to avoid distractions. I schedule two blocks of time for reading, answering and filing my emails every day… one session just before lunch and one at the end of the day.
2. I try to answer emails in 140 characters or less.
3. I use a countdown timer when tackling tasks – normally 15 minutes per task, and then try to beat the buzzer. This keeps you challenged, focussed and motivated throughout the day.

44 David_H February 12, 2014 at 7:29 pm

This decision matrix is about the only thing I remember from a 4 day Covey seminar I took 20 years ago.

I stress to my team (and my boss) that we have to carve out time every week to work on Q2 activities. I also tell my team that it’s okay to say no on Q3 activities. After all no is not a four letter word.

45 Chip February 14, 2014 at 8:22 am

This is one of the best things I have read on this site yet. This should be taught in schools!

46 Rob Mullen April 17, 2014 at 1:17 pm

I responded to 15 emails, and 5 text messages while reading this article. This article was important but not urgent.

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