If most of your workday is consumed by “putting out fires,” there’s a good chance you’re not focusing your attention on what’s truly important. You know, the never-ending to-do list you find yourself trying to get to the bottom of, only to realize you’re falling even further behind. As a startup business consultant, I’ve witnessed this vicious cycle countless times. And I’m here to show you how you can use the Eisenhower Matrix to finally break the cycle and focus your attention on what truly matters.
The Eisenhower Matrix was created by Stephen Covey, the author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Mr. Covey developed the matrix from the processes that Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th President of the United States, had verbalized throughout his presidency to prioritize what’s important over what may be considered urgent. Not only did President Eisenhower excel at prioritizing, but he achieved some pretty important milestones during his presidency, like keeping America at peace, ending the Korean War, establishing NASA, creating the interstate highway system, and passing the Civil Rights Act of 1957, to name a few.
So, what is the Eisenhower Matrix, and how can you start applying it to your life today?
To put it simply, the Eisenhower Matrix is a framework to help you better organize your priorities and determine which of your activities are important and which are nothing more than shiny objects trying to distract you from reaching your most important goals.
To apply the Eisenhower Matrix, follow the 5 steps below:
STEP 1: List all the activities and projects you want to accomplish professionally and personally.
STEP 2: Next, divide your tasks into 4 quadrants, as shown below:
Quadrant 1 (urgent and important): these are tasks with clear deadlines and significant consequences if not taken care of in a timely fashion…like addressing a customer complaint, taking care of a hot request from your boss, filling your taxes on time, or picking up your sick kid from daycare.
Quadrant 2 (not urgent but important): these are tasks without a clear deadline but have the power to bring you closer to your goals. For example: investing in professional development, volunteering in your community, spending more quality time with your family, or improving your health and wellness.
Quadrant 3 (urgent but not important): these are tasks that need to get done for someone else but don’t necessarily need to be your priority. Like that meeting that could have been an email, the report your coworker suddenly wants you to weigh in on at the eleventh hour, or certain errands your partner wants you to check off their list ASAP.
Quadrant 4 (not urgent and not important): These tasks don’t bring any value and only pull you further away from reaching your goal. For example, responding to certain work emails or phone calls, busy work, mindlessly scrolling social media, or binge-watching shows.
STEP 3: While it’s important to take care of the time-sensitive items in quadrant 1, do your best to make it a priority to spend more time in quadrant 2. If you’re struggling with dedicating the time to do so, you’re not alone. So, my recommendation is to start small by scheduling 1-2 hours a week for the tasks that truly matter in quadrant 2. You’ll be amazed how much even the smallest steps can add up noticeable progress toward your goals.
STEP 4: Find a way to reschedule, delegate, or say no to the tasks in quadrant 3. Easier said than done, I know. But hear me out, if you can truly let go of the to-dos in this quadrant, you’ll have way more time and energy to focus on the tasks that matter in quadrant 2. And the best part? As a seasoned Product Manager, I can assure you that no matter how much you let go of your backlog, the real important tasks will always resurface in your life if they’re truly important.
STEP 5: Cut out as many activities from quadrant 4 as possible. Don’t misunderstand; I’m not saying you should never kick back and watch your favorite show or treat yourself to some retail therapy if that’s your thing. Just ensure you don’t let the tasks in this quadrant keep you from accomplishing what’s truly important in your life.
To hear more about the value of the Eisenhower Method, tune into episode 4 of The Drops Podcast, where my co-host, Tam, and I, interview the President and Co-Founder of Beyond Barriers, Brooke Skinner Ricketts. While we talk in-depth about Brooke’s diverse background and her mission to close the gender gap at work, we also touch on the importance of using the Eisenhower Matrix to help teams prioritize their tasks and how to use it as a filter to think through feedback.