What is an Eisenhower Matrix?

Dwight D. Eisenhower was a 5-star General in the United States Army who served as and served as Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force during World War 2.  Later he was the 34th President of the United States of America from 1953 to 1961.  Dwight Eisenhower attributed a phrase related to time management to a “former college president” which stated:

“I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.” (source: presidency.ucsb.edu)

This formed the basis of a decision making and time management method which sorted tasks based on urgency and importance.  

Definition: What is Eisenhower Matrix
Eisenhower matrix definition

Some time after Eisenhower’s insights into problem management based on urgency and importance, Dr. Stephen Covey established in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People a more practical method to prioritise tasks.

This became known as the Eisenhower Matrix also known as The Time Management Matrix, The Eisenhower Box, The Eisenhower Method, and The Urgent-Important Matrix.  The process included mapping of tasks against the two dimensions of urgency and importance  in a four-box grid with an example provided below 👇

Example of Eisenhower Urgency and Importance matrix
Eisenhower matrix

By mapping the tasks against this matrix, it allows them to be triaged to different treatments:

  1. Important / Urgent: Tasks that are time critical and should be done personally e.g. an imminent deadline
  2. Important / Not Urgent: Needs to be done however can be scheduled for a future date e.g. long term strategies or plans or future phases / releases
  3. Not important / Urgent: What can be done by others e.g. attending a meeting
  4. Not Important / Not Urgent: What does not need to be done at all e.g. unofficial business

The difference between urgency and importance

On the surface, the task seems easy and where there are  just the “two kinds of problems” as Eisenhower stated, one would hope that would make mapping tasks into the matrix easy.  However there is the risk that tasks that are urgent get an implied importance based on a deadline or due date that is more imminent.  This is called the ‘mere-urgency’ effect where time (or the perception there isn’t enough of it) creates importance.

A way to help distinguish between urgency and importance is to look at the outcome of the task rather than the task itself.  Mapping a task as ‘urgent’ or ‘not urgent’ can be done based on available time to complete the tasks as a starting point however assign a different measure for importance.  To determine if the task then goes against the ‘important’ or ‘not important’ classification, review the outcome or perhaps even the consequence.  

Place a value on your time

Project Managers are always likely to be time poor, especially if there are aspects of your personal life that require dedicated time.  A good idea when using the Eisenhower Matrix is to include not just project or professional tasks but personal ones as well.  For many of us, the hardest part will be to assign our tasks to the ‘Don’t Do’ quadrant.  The more tasks in this box, the quicker your to-do list will whittle right down and you’ll be able to focus on only critical items.  As Debasish Mridha stated “Sometimes the most important thing to do is to do nothing”.

Eisenhower matrix FAQs

What is Eisenhower matrix?

An Eisenhower Matrix is a productivity tool and framework that helps to prioritise tasks based on urgency or importance.  It is a useful framework to enable a Project Manager to determine which tasks to prioritise in order to complete first and which tasks to defer or delegate.

What are quadrants of Eisenhower matrix?

Eisenhower matrix has two dimensions of urgency and importance  in a four-box grid.

  1. Important / Urgent: Tasks that are time critical and should be done personally e.g. an imminent deadline
  2. Important / Not Urgent: Needs to be done however can be scheduled for a future date e.g. long term strategies or plans or future phases / releases
  3. Not important / Urgent: What can be done by others e.g. attending a meeting
  4. Not Important / Not Urgent: What does not need to be done at all e.g. unofficial business