Organizing tasks

Think like a President: the Eisenhower Matrix

The hammer is the most essential tool in anyone’s toolbox. As a city girl that only really builds IKEA furniture, I would know. JK, ya girl verified this on Google.

As someone who identifies as being highly productive and results-oriented however, I can vouch that the Eisenhower Matrix is a hammer in your productivity toolbox.

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If you can, get yourself one that shoots lightning too. Double win.

I do like to think of myself as a productive and organized person, but this does not mean I’m not subject to overwhelming decision paralysis, or procrastination.

In moments like this, what often helps me the most is doing a quick Eisenhower Matrix exercise to simplify and triage the items in my to-do list. This means understanding:

  • what needs to be done at all costs
  • what can be deferred or delegated
  • what are inconsequential tasks that can be removed

What is the Eisenhower Matrix?

The Eisenhower Matrix is what War General & President Eisenhower used to assess his top priority tasks that needed completion. As the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, Eisenhower was responsible for bringing Axis powers to a halt after storming the beaches of Normandy during World War II, leading to an Allied victory against fascism and genocide.

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Actual D-Day GIF of troops storming the beaches of Normandy.

A war strategy like the Battle of Normandy has a plethora of decisions and logistical complexity. To effectively execute on an initiative like this, Eisenhower intuitively grasped an important principle to the decisions he had to make: Understanding the difference between what is urgent, and what is important.

  • Important activities help lead to us achieving our goals.
  • Urgent activities demand immediate attention, with direct consequences if they are not attended to.

In addition, General & President Eisenhower also understood that one category outranked the other — that is, important tasks far exceeded prioritization compared to urgent ones.

I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.

Dwight D. Eisenhower

The Eisenhower Matrix helps you understand how to execute tasks specifically based on these two components: importance and urgency, image below. You’ll see the color separation of tasks to prioritize (green) and tasks you should not be working on (red).

This matrix will help you answer the question: what should I prioritize?

Eisenhower Matrix: How to Prioritise and Master Productivity | TechTello
Image Source: TechTello

Understanding the Quadrants

When using the Eisenhower Matrix for tasks, it’s important to understand how your tasks fit into each quadrant:

Quadrant I: Important / Urgent

Action: Reduce and Execute.

Quadrant I is the combination of important and urgent tasks.

These tasks typically need no additional willpower or motivation to complete them — by nature, the external pressure applied to these tasks provides you incentive to complete them. This is because of the urgent component to these tasks; urgency provides a consequence if there is no swift action.

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Mood when doing Q1 tasks.

What’s at risk however, is incessant stress, anxiety, and feeling overwhelmed.

To mitigate this, you’ll need to actively manage is the number of Q1 tasks you have under your belt. How can you actively plan for future important tasks so they are completed before they become urgent?

Quadrant II: Important / Not Urgent

Action: Plan and Schedule.

The previous question transitions nicely into the second quadrant — focusing on items that are not urgent, but require intentional planning and execution to help achieve the goal at hand.

It is Quadrant II tasks that have the slipperiest slope — these are the ones that are sacrificed to doom scrolling, Netflix shows, TikTok challenges, naps… the list goes on. Because they are not urgent, there is no external pressure driving these tasks forward. Even though they are just as important as tasks in Q1, they will either:

  1. Transition into a Q1 task, adding more stress, anxiety and overwhelm to your day, or
  2. Forever move down the to-do list because of lack of urgency until eventually the task and the overarching goal behind the task, are retired into the dusty attic of forgotten dreams.
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MFW when thinking about forgotten attic dreams.

To mitigate this, understand that when it comes to energy and motivation allocation, strategize for these tasks first.

Use whatever tactics exist in your playbook to make sure these things get done: creating a false sense of urgency, strategic planning and scheduling, breaking the task down into the smallest batch, etc, it doesn’t matter. Just. Get. Them. Done.

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Strategize, strategize, strategize.

Look over your to do list. Ask yourself this: what are tasks that exist in this quadrant that I often mind myself deprioritizing or putting off? What can I do to ensure I keep these tasks more top of mind?

Quadrant III: Not Important / Urgent

Action: Delegate.

Don’t let urgency fool you.

Too often our to-do lists are filled with easy, filler tasks that bring satisfaction when crossing them off. But then we find ourselves sitting back and asking ourselves: did that really help my long term goal?

This is because by nature we gravitate towards the urgent tasks, or what is known as the Mere Urgency effect.

Results of five experiments from the Journal of Consumer Research demonstrates that humans instinctively prioritize urgent tasks with fast turnaround times over other tasks with larger rewards simply because there is a “deadline” attached to it.

Research at Johns Hopkins further demonstrates that because of this “mere urgency” effect, we will likely select the unimportant task over the more essential task with the later deadline not because of any logical reason, but simply because the unimportant task has been assigned a label of URGENT.

Our brains are wired for short-term results. Fending for ourselves on the Serengeti, our primal brains are not equipped to instinctively focus on long term goals, we were rewarded with a higher rate of survival when pondering how to find the next meal, not planning out logistics for a future hunt.

Q3 tasks often create a false sense of accomplishment — you may have completed a task on the to do list, but ask yourself: did this task bring you closer or add long term value to your larger life goal? If it did not, prioritizing tasks in this quadrant will reduce the control you feel over your day-to-day life, forcing you to focus on the goals of others than your own.

As such, delegate, delegate, delegate. If these are tasks someone else can do them better, it’s in your best interest (and the team’s) to pass these off to someone so you can focus on the important tasks only you can do.

In summary,

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Disclaimer: I don’t really drink, so this is really for comedic effect.

Quadrant IV: Not Important / Not Urgent

Action: Delete.

When researching existing articles on the Eisenhower Matrix, the majority focus on the Q1 and Q2 goals, which is fair. These are the important items that naturally get more attention. In my personal experience however, it’s just as important to understand what not to do.

Q4 is the best example of this. As James Clear mentions in his article on the Eisenhower Matrix:

Too often, we use productivity, time management, and optimization as an excuse to avoid the really difficult question: “Do I actually need to be doing this?” It is much easier to remain busy and tell yourself that you just need to be a little more efficient or to “work a little later tonight” than to endure the pain of eliminating a task that you are comfortable with doing, but that isn’t the highest and best use of your time.

James Clear,
How to be More Productive and Eliminate Time Wasting Activities by Using the “Eisenhower Box”

This is a very important question to be honest with yourself: How effective are you being with your to do list? Are you completing tasks for the sake of feeling busy? Or are these tasks that really promote long term growth?

This is probably the best low hanging fruit when it comes to triaging a to-do list. Spending a little energy now to eliminate as much of the unnecessary as possible reduces later energy output required to do these tasks that in reality, could have been replaced with things much more important.

Similar to James Clear, I find that eliminating all the non-essential tasks that can squander our finite attention allows us to pay attention to the things that matter. As a rule of thumb: get used to saying no, so you can say heck yes to the things that matter.

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Use the hammer, find that nail

Now that you understand how to effectively use this hammer, go forth and seek out your nails — whenever you feel overwhelmed by the things you need to do, ask yourself this: is this task actually worth doing?

TL;DR

Eisenhower Matrix strategies:

  1. Understand the types of tasks you have to actively manage:
    • Important / Urgent
    • Important / Not Urgent
    • Not Important / Urgent
    • Not Important / Not Urgent
  2. Ruthlessly delete and eliminate Q3 and Q4 tasks — learn to say no to as many things as possible that are not related to your important goals related to Q1 and Q2.
  3. Understand which tasks require the most willpower to focus on. Prioritize and plan out Q2 Important / Not Urgent tasks.
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