The Eisenhower Box: A Beginner’s Guide To Prioritizing Your Life

Updated August 3, 2021 by Iulian Ionescu | Read Time min.
eisenhower priority box matrix

The Eisenhower Box is quite popular these days. But what is it? You see, priority, or the order in which we rank things based on a particular criterion, is a concept that permeates every aspect of our lives. This ranking happens every day, whether or not we think about it, or whether we do it consciously or subconsciously or, sometimes, unconsciously. Therefore, it’s only natural that we all strive to find better ways to deal with it.

Priority Is Everywhere

Think about your day-to-day activities, from the most trivial ones, such as eating or taking a shower, to more complex ones such as buying a house. When you perform any of those activities or any intermediate tasks that might one day get you to those activities, you decide about priority.

Now, priority is not one big, overarching thing controlling all aspects of your life. You compartmentalize your life into different boxes, and inside those boxes, you order items by their priority. For example, your marriage has a set of priorities, your place of employment has others, while your hobby has yet another.

You could start first by prioritizing your life boxes, and by ordering those inner activities by some criteria of their own. It’s fair for you to say that your marriage or your relationship with your children trumps your work and your hobbies. But does that mean that every activity inside those categories trumps all activities in all other categories? That approach is, as you can imagine, too simplistic and, honestly, won’t lead to a very effective way of life.

So this means we need a better, more thoughtful way of assigning a priority to the things in our lives, from the highest to the lowest level. This system will stay at the core of the overall organization of our life, so it needs to be designed for effectiveness and efficiency.

Two Dimensions of Priority

Two main dimensions drive the priority of everything in life. They are importance and urgency. Let’s look at them one at a time.

First Dimension – Importance

The importance is driven by you, and by your values and beliefs. Values are the things that define for you what is right and what is wrong. Beliefs are the things you hold as being true. Because these are at the core of your character, they will drive what is important to you.

For example, if family is a very high value that you hold in your life, you will assign high importance to anything related to your family. On the other hand, if your highest value is fitness, you might consider any kind of physical activity as trumping most things and decisions in your life.

There is no right or wrong here. Your values are your values. Regardless of whether you accept your system of values as is, or if you work through personal development to create a superior set of values, whatever values you do have at any given moment in time will define what is essential for you.

Although values and beliefs are the significant drivers of the importance dimension, you must also consider all your cognitive biases. These biases create behaviors and attitudes that might not be easily explained.

Second Dimension – Urgency

The second dimension is urgency. Unlike importance, which is mostly internal, urgency can be both internal and external. What this means is that you might assign a high level of urgency to something that you need, regardless of whether it’s important or not, or someone else might assign that urgency without you being able to influence it.

The best example, of course, comes in the context of a job. There are things in your work that are being tasked to you with high urgency, and you have little to no say in it. You simply have to execute.

A bill from your gas provider comes to your house, and it’s now past due. There’s a message that if you do not pay it within fourteen days, they will cut your gas off. That’s urgency, too. It is external because it comes from somebody else, but it’s also internal because you didn’t take care of it when it wasn’t urgent.

Both importance and urgency affect priority. So, how do you manage them?

“Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.”Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The Eisenhower Box or Eisenhower Priority Matrix

Dwight d Eisenhower box Dwight D. Eisenhower was the 34th President of the United States, serving between 1953 and 1961, and was a highly decorated General of the Army having fought in both World War I and II. General of the Army, or a five-star General, is the highest rank in the US Army, and to date, only five people have held this position. So that’s pretty impressive already. Add to that the fact that he served as the Supreme Commander of the Army during World War II and orchestrated the US invasion of Europe, including D-Day, which basically ended the war. Besides that, and among a gazillion other things, Eisenhower built the United States Interstate Highway System and created NASA.

Needless to say, he was a pretty freaking effective and efficient human being, which makes the existence of a productivity method that bears his name not surprising.

The Eisenhower Box or Eisenhower Matrix history can be traced back to something Eisenhower said, or at least historians attribute it to him: “I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”

There’s a caveat here, and we’ll get to it in a moment. But let’s ponder upon this for a moment. Eisenhower knew instinctively that importance and urgency are the two dimensions that affected his productivity. By managing those properly, he was able to increase his effectiveness and efficiency across all aspects of his life.

Let’s see how the matrix looks like:

eisenhower priority matrix

(A) – IMPORTANT & URGENT

These are your crises. Because the underlying activities are important, you care a lot about their execution. But they are also urgent, which means there is some deadline associated with them. Think about a college application or payment to a provider of a service you need. You must complete these tasks fast, because they are urgent, and you must do them also because they are essential.

(C) – IMPORTANT & NOT URGENT

These are the part of your life where you have ample time to act because there is no urgency, and you have the propensity to act because they are important to you. General planning, working toward your goals, preparation, and small steps toward bigger goals fall in this category.

(D) – NOT IMPORTANT & URGENT

These are mostly things that are imposed on you by others, or you let them slide for too long until they became urgent. For example, a phone call from your boss asking you to do something outside your job description falls into this category. The same goes for an unpaid parking ticket from last year that has now turned into a summons.

(E) – NOT URGENT & NOT IMPORTANT

All the rest of life’s time-wasters fall in this category. Mindlessly watching TV, or spending hours on end on Facebook, they are all in this box.

The Eisenhower Box Details

In his best-selling book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey presents this matrix under the name of the four quadrants, with Q1 urgent and important, Q2 not urgent and important, Q3 urgent and not important, and Q4 not urgent and not important.

Covey asserts that the problem most people have is spending too much time in quadrant four and allowing themselves to be dragged into quadrant three too often. Any time you waste energy and effort toward things that are not important, by definition, you are not productive.

The next place where people spend a lot of their time is in quadrant one. This results from allowing things to slide for too long until they reach the level of urgency that now forces their hand to act.

The reality is that we should all spend most of our time in the second quadrant. This is where the things that are important to us are not yet urgent. It means that we have the necessary time and space to think about them, get organized, prepare, and execute them without the pressure of time or repercussions. This is the proactive quadrant where you are in control.

Every time things slide into quadrant one or three, you lose some of that control because of the added pressure from urgency.

The Urgency Fallacy

Many people only know how to perform when there’s a sword hanging above their heads. They are people who are less self-motivated and cannot plan and organize themselves in a proactive manner. By allowing things to become urgent, they execute with their backs against the wall.

This is a big mistake and the root of a lot of productivity problems. By letting things become urgent, in time, you will allow unimportant items to take precedence over important issues. Although you are doing a lot of things (because you have to), you are not doing enough of the important things. Overall, your effectiveness will decrease across the board.

People who hold everything in their life as urgent, are people who constantly seem to be running out of time because they do not have control of their time.

Failure to allow for ample time to organize yourself and plan will lead to this urgency fallacy. In time, you will begin mentally to allow things to become urgent just because you know you will execute them if they do. That’s a slippery slope, and soon you won’t be able to distinguish between those items which you purposely allow to become urgent versus those that are genuinely urgent by their nature.

Executing only what is urgent is the same as giving away your control in life. If you are a person with an external locus of control, this will come naturally to you, but you must find ways to fight it. In the long-run, allowing the urgent to run your life will eventually destroy your quality of life and life enjoyment in general.

The Importance Fallacy

Failure to take stock of your own values and beliefs will lead to a lack of determinants for the critical things in your life. Not taking the time to reflect and create a vision for your life, which then would lead to setting goals toward that vision, means that you don’t know what is important.

Sure, you have a natural sense that some things are essential. If you have children, of course, they are important, and anything related to them is crucial. If you have a job, of course, going to work is critical, too.

But those are high-level. You need to get granular here and dig deep. Don’t just stay at the surface. Split your life into its parts and really define all the elements that are of high importance to you.

You might start from your four core dimensions, which are physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual, and then break them down further. As you go deeper and deeper, figure out what is important to you across the board.

There’s a relationship between importance and urgency that requires this self-awareness from you. You must be able to know when to say no and when to say yes, what to accept and what to reject.

Only by knowing what is important can you work toward not letting those parts become urgent. Click To Tweet

How to Use the Eisenhower Matrix

You can create a different Eisenhower box for different periods. The importance will always be the same, but the urgency will be determined by time.

For instance, if you must submit a project this year, from an annual planning perspective, this is an urgent project.

However, if we are in January, and you plan to deliver your project in July, from the January perspective, this project is not urgent. Once July comes along, if your project is not yet complete, it has become urgent.

During the time between January and July, your project sat in the Q2 quadrant. It wasn’t urgent but important. You had time to plan it and work toward it at your own pace.

As you deconstruct big projects into their smaller parts, those parts can be entered into a priority matrix, too.

For example, let’s say that there are four parts to your project that should be done one after the other because they depend upon each other.

You might set the first part to be done in January, the second in February, and so on.

Although the project as a whole is in the second quadrant, its first task is now urgent in February. If you are unable to complete it then, it will derail all the other parts and put you in danger of reaching July with some parts incomplete, which will make the entire project urgent.

This example shows how anything in your life can be put in the priority matrix and that you can have big matrices and smaller ones.

If you are a person who has created a vision for your life as a whole and has a set of long-term goals, putting those into the priority matrix and working your way backward is an excellent way to assign priority to your entire life.

By being deliberate in arranging your whole life based on the priority box, you will be able to spend most of your time in quadrant two-the proactive quadrant.

This means that, in time, you will reduce or eliminate all quadrant four activities, you will reject most of the quadrant three activities, and you will allow almost nothing to get to quadrant one.

You are becoming both effective and efficient. You are becoming more productive overall.

Here’s another way to look at the Eisenhower Box, from an action perspective:

eisenhower priority box

Eisenhower Box’s Quadrant Three

priority importance urgency I want to stop for another minute to look at quadrant three because many people, myself included, struggle with it. The unimportant things that appear urgent are a black hole that will slowly and surely suck up your time and energy. They will pull you away from what is important. Note that although the word Delegate is used traditionally to define quadrant three, in today’s world, it can be understood as Delegate/Automate because automation is, in fact, a form of delegation, in that you delegate the work to a system or tool rather than to a person.

Regardless of the method used, this quadrant contains the items which you must reject by learning how to say no to people. This is particularly tough for me because I am a natural people pleaser. I seem to measure my value based on how others appreciate my performance. This is, of course, wrong, because it disregards the importance based on my values, and prioritizes the importance based on others’ values. Through practice, though, if you become proficient at delegating parts of the tasks in this box either to other people or to automated systems, you can figure out a way to slowly eradicate this behavior.

How To Define Your Own Eisenhower Box?

Here’s the wrong way to approach the priority box, and, unfortunately, it is the way it manifests for most people:

  1. “Oh, crap!! I have to do this now! Fire! Fire! Fire!”
  2. “Oh well; there’s enough time. I’ll look at this tomorrow. Or next week.”
  3. “Man, I gotta do this because XYZ needs it. It will make me feel busy and maybe get a thank you.”
  4. “Now I’m tired as hell. I have to decompress and rest.”

See a pattern? This would be okay if it happened once, but this tends to become a routine for one’s entire life.

Here’s the correct way to approach the matrix:

  1. “I have to do this. Once I’m done, I’ll reflect to understand why this got so urgent in the first place. This will help me figure out ways to prevent it in the future.”
  2. “I need to spend time now to plan and execute this while I have ample time.”
  3. “I need to say NO or figure out if someone else could do this for me. Maybe I can create a system or use a tool?”
  4. “I am tired, but I won’t waste time until my Q2 items are all done.”

Approach to Each Quadrant

Now that you have a basic understanding of the Eisenhower Box let’s look at specific ways to approach each quadrant.

1) Do

  • Do these tasks immediately with no further delay
  • Prioritize the hardest, most complex things first
  • Once completed, sit down and reflect
  • Reassess their importance to make sure that they were vital to you
  • Understand what happened that led to them becoming urgent
  • What systems and processes can you put in place for this to not happen again?

2) Plan

  • Break these tasks into bite-size pieces
  • Create to-do lists and execution checklists
  • Schedule the tasks’ execution in your calendar

3) Delegate / Automate

  • During the planning phase, decide who can help you with these tasks
  • Say no to people
  • Use automation tools

4) Don’t Do It

  • Block distractions in your life (such as social media or popup notifications)
  • Keep an eye on your bad habits
  • Schedule proper relaxation time during your planning phase
  • Watch your overall health to prevent burnout, which would lead you to quadrant four

Eisenhower Box – Conclusion

The Eisenhower Priority Matrix allows you to create order in your life, by organizing the things that you have to do by their importance and urgency. By being deliberate in defining those two dimensions for yourself, and by taking the time to categorize everything that comes your way through the prism of those two, you will enter the gateway to becoming more efficient and effective in all areas of your life.

Setting priority in your life is only the beginning. From there, you can define your to-do list system, daily checklists, and work on creating your vision. Once you have priority set, the possibilities are endless.

As you begin to apply this method, your productivity across the board will increase. With it, your life enjoyment will improve as well. After all, once you get clarity in what is important for you, and you work toward those things, you will live a better, more enjoyable life.

Now, before you go, I have…

3 Questions For You

  1. Have you experienced the urgency or importance fallacies in your life?
  2. What other methods do you use to determine the priority of your tasks?
  3. What are your biggest struggles with identifying what is important in your life?

Please share your answers in the comments below. Sharing knowledge helps us all improve and get better!

iulian-ionescu


Tags

organization, priority


  • Hello Iulian,
    What a breath of fresh air this article is, particularly how well explained the definitions of ‘what is important’ and ‘what is urgent’. I also use the Eisenhower Method to practice better time management. I have veered off from the standard pen and paper to online. Do you still use pen & paper?

    If you’re interested in having a look at a free tool with a template for the matrix, feel free to have a look at my article: https://zenkit.com/en/blog/eisenhower-matrix-increasing-efficiency-via-task-prioritization Feedback is appreciated.

    Best,
    Jessica

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