The Eisenhower Matrix

In our all too busy lives, we often find ourselves with so many different tasks to complete that it’s difficult to know where to start. We might decide to first tackle whichever will take the shortest amount of time to get it out of the way, or the one we enjoy the most. But as the day goes on, we frequently see that there’s no way we’re going to complete everything on our to-do list.

Often, we are resistant to asking for help and we therefore bite off more than we can chew, but this can leave us burnt out or with half-complete to-do lists. We might prioritize the wrong tasks first and be left to complete the most important thing in the late hours of the night. “There must be a better way,” we find ourselves thinking.

The Eisenhower Matrix is a time-management strategy that helps you determine which tasks should be prioritized, which can be delegated, and which can be tackled at a later time – or not at all.

Who can define for us with accuracy the difference between the long and short term! Especially when our affairs seem to be in crisis, we are almost compelled to give our first attention to the urgent present rather than to the important future.

– Dwight D. Eisenhower in his 1961 address to the Century Association1

The Basic Idea

There are a number of cognitive biases that impede our ability to manage our time effectively and efficiently. The projection bias causes us to take on big tasks when we feel optimistic, inaccurately projecting that we will continue to feel that way in the future. Similarly, the optimism bias leads us to believe we are going to be more efficient than we are, so we might take on a task that is too big for us to handle alone. Bikeshedding describes our tendency to spend too much time on menial tasks because it is easier to have an opinion on simpler matters than to try and tackle the complex ones. The restraint bias causes us to overestimate the level of control we have over our impulse behaviors and underestimate how distracted we might get while trying to complete our to-do list.

With all these various biases leading us astray, it is no surprise that we find it difficult to know what to prioritize. However, tools like the Eisenhower Matrix can help us overcome these biases by rationally categorizing our tasks by urgency and importance.

The Eisenhower Matrix is a four-category tool, with two columns and two rows. The columns are labelled ‘urgent’ and ‘not urgent’, and the rows are labelled ‘important’ and ‘not important’.2 Depending on which category your activities fall into, there are strategies for how best to deal with each one.

Activities in the urgent & important category should be done immediately. Activities that are not urgent & important should be scheduled for a later date – but you must ensure to stick to that schedule and not put them off. Activities in the urgent & not important section should be delegated to someone else. Lastly, activities in the not urgent and not important category should be deleted altogether.2

History

The Eisenhower Matrix is named after the 34th President of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who served in office from 1953 to 1961. Before being elected as President, Eisenhower had an impressive career in the military. He served during World War I and later wrote a guidebook of its battlefields. He also served in France, Washington, the Philippines, and World War II.3 Eisenhower was recognized by the Army Chief for his role in planning military exercises  with almost 50,000 troops. He continued to increase in ranks over the years as a result of his impressive knowledge, effective organization, and social skills that enabled him to get along with others and mediate relationships.3 This ability got the attention of both the Democratic and Republican parties who wanted Eisenhower to represent them. He retired from the military after 37 years of service to represent the Republican party, with Richard Nixon as his Vice President.

Eisenhower was a very busy man with a multitude of responsibilities. He was incredibly accomplished and was able to manage his different roles with tact, grace, and efficiency. After his terms as President, Eisenhower delivered a speech to the Second Assembly of the World Council of Churches, a fellowship of churches. In his speech, he quoted J. Roscoe Miller, the 12th president of Northwestern University, who said, “The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”4

Eisenhower understood that time management needed to both be effective and efficient and he wanted to help individuals navigate their priorities. Inspired by Miller, Eisenhower claimed that to be successful, one had to do things that were both urgent and important: thus, the Eisenhower Matrix was born.

Consequences

The Eisenhower Matrix has two key elements that are sometimes missing from other time management tools.

Firstly, it requires you to distinguish between what is urgent and what is important. These two terms are sometimes used synonymously, but the matrix suggests that they should be treated differently. Urgent tasks are time-sensitive. They might be simpler than important tasks, such as replying to emails or filling out forms, but we feel pressured to do these tasks first because they require us to be reactive. These are often the tasks we focus on first, even though they might not yield the most impactful results for our overall lives.5 Important tasks, by contrast, are more complex and strategic tasks. They are aligned with our goals and achieving them advances our personal or professional lives. We often put these tasks off because they require more work and even perhaps because we are afraid of failing at them. Unfortunately, procrastinating these tasks often means that by the time we get around to them, we have less brain power and energy, and are thus more likely to make mistakes.4 Decision Fatigue is the term that describes this decline in willpower and attentiveness, which characterizes our work after we’ve done a series of less important tasks before getting to the one we’ve put off.

Secondly, the Eisenhower Matrix has a ‘delete’ section. While most time management tools are all about getting everything you have done, the Eisenhower Matrix realizes that in reality, the most effective way to get things done is by getting rid of unnecessary tasks. We might feel productive when we do it all, but the Eisenhower Matrix forces us to ask the difficult questions: Do I actually need to do this? Is this task really going to help me attain my vision? Will this task benefit my long-term goals? 6

This recognition that we may need to cut out elements of our schedules that feel productive but are actually wasted time can be traced back to Vilfredo Pareto and the 80/20 rule.

The Mere-Urgency Effect

In 2018, Meng Zhu, Yang Yang and Christopher Hsee designed an experiment to answer a simple question: When people are faced with choices of varying urgency and importance, how do they choose what to prioritize? 7

Similarly to the Eisenhower Matrix, the researchers defined task importance by whether the task involves significant outcomes, and defined task urgency by a short completion window. To conceptualize the difference between the two, they used the example of scheduling a routine checkup at the doctor’s as an important task and a cancer screening after one discovers a mole as an urgent one.

The researchers wanted to see which tasks were prioritized and how the trade-offs were made. They devised a series of different experiments that forced participants to choose between tasks that would expire and give some reward (urgent) and tasks that would not expire and give a larger reward.

In the first experiment, participants were told that they could either complete Task A or Task B: both tasks required them to complete five product reviews in five minutes and both tasks would be the same level of difficulty. In the urgency condition, students were told that Task A would offer them a bonus of 6 points per review and expire in 10 minutes and Task B would offer them 10 points per review and expire in 24 hours. They were told that for every 10 points they earned, they would receive one Hershey’s Kiss. In a control condition, students were told that both Task A and Task B would have different bonus points available but that both expired after 24 hours.

The researchers found that in the control condition, only 13.3% of students chose to work on the more urgent, low-pay off task (earning them 6 points), whereas 31.3% of students in the urgency condition decided to work on the more urgent, low-pay off task. Since both tasks actually took the same amount of time and therefore the chance of completing one review in either was the same, it would have made more sense to pick the task that would offer the greatest reward and did not expire quicker. The researchers speculated that people were being influenced by the mere urgency effect, which describes people’s tendency to be influenced by the expiration of a task over its potential payoff.7

The researchers believed that the mere urgency effect occurred because people get enticed by restricted time frames, and that therefore, it could be diminished by shifting participants’  attention to importance instead of urgency. They devised another experiment to show this. In the new experiment, participants were asked to complete an online study for a fixed payment of 50 cents, with the possibility of either a 12 cent or 16 cent bonus depending on which task they chose. Half the workers were reminded to pay attention to the payoff of each task. The researchers found that when the payoffs were highlighted at the moment of task choice, the mere urgency effect did not come into play and workers were more likely to choose the higher paying  task.7 In other words, the participants understood the value of importance over urgency, but prioritized whichever one was pointed out to them.

We can think of the Eisenhower Matrix as a tool that reminds people to pay more attention to the payoff of their task by asking them to decide whether it is just urgent, or also important. It therefore can help mitigate the impacts of the mere urgency effect to ensure that you prioritize what will yield the most fruitful outcomes.

Related TDL Content

Protecting Your Projects from Cognitive Bias

Projects never go as planned. Our writer Natasha Hawryluk tackles this difficult truth and offers advice on how to  avoid delays and falling prey to the planning fallacy. As Hawryluk explores, understanding cognitive biases might help people manage their projects more effectively.

Unitasking: How to Get More Done in Less Time 

The Eisenhower Matrix is a time management strategy that advises sorting tasks into four different categories based on urgency and importance. A similar strategy, unitasking, might also be an effective way to get more done in less time. Our writer Ipsitaa Khullar outlines the science behind unitasking and explains why it might be a better strategy than multitasking.

Sources

  1. Scroggs, L. (n.d.). The Eisenhower Matrix. Todoist. Retrieved February 23, 2021, from https://todoist.com/productivity-methods/eisenhower-matrix#the-mere-urgency-effect-aka-why-were-bad-at-prioritization
  2. Wilson, F. (2019, March 28). What Is the Eisenhower Matrix? How to Use It to Be More Productive? nTask. https://www.ntaskmanager.com/blog/eisenhower-matrix/
  3. Reeves, T. C. (1999, July 28). Dwight D. Eisenhower. Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved February 23, 2021, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Dwight-D-Eisenhower
  4. Mind Tools Content Team. (n.d.). Eisenhower’s Urgent/Important Principle. Mind Tools. Retrieved February 23, 2021, from https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newHTE_91.htm
  5. Eisenhower Matrix: Master Productivity and Eliminate Noise. (2020, November 28). Farnam Street. Retrieved February 23, 2021, from https://fs.blog/2013/04/eisenhower-matrix/
  6. Clear, J. (2020, June 9). How to be More Productive and Eliminate Time Wasting Activities by Using the “Eisenhower Box”. James Clear. https://jamesclear.com/eisenhower-box
  7. Zhu, M., Yang, Y., & Hsee, C. K. (2018). The Mere Urgency effect. Oxford University Press, 45, 673-690. https://doi.org/10.1093/jcr/ucy008

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