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The Eisenhower Matrix is really all you need for decisions

You ever heard of the Eisenhower Matrix? No? Yes? Either way, it’s important for any type of decision-making, especially if you’re all of the belief that this is the fastest-moving, busiest time ever. I will explain to you what exactly it is, including visuals, but I gotta walk through this so you have the back context. Isn’t that what this blog is called?

The first step in this process

There’s a really good recent article on First Round Review about making self-care a competitive advantage. I’m sure a lot of hardcore business people bristle at that, because “self-care” runs opposite to “The Temple of Busy,” and the busy side is more important for relevance. (More on that in a few seconds.) Here’s a great little pull quote from this article:

Did you execute your work — the emails you wanted to write, the strategy document you owed your boss — the stuff you had on your list at the start of the day? Did you do the things that were important and not just urgent?

That last one is the key question here, and oftentimes the key question of work. And how we solve this issue is the Eisenhower Matrix.

Is the Eisenhower Matrix named for Dwight Eisenhower?

Sure is. Hopefully he doesn’t need vetting, but if he does: helped U.S. win WW2 as a general, then presided over a period of generally nice prosperity as the U.S. grew post-WW2. Yes, often considered a boring President, which is probably part of the reason America wanted Kennedy over Nixon following Ike. On aggregate rankings by U.S. Presidential historians, he’s considered the fifth-best ever. So I guess we can listen to him?

OK, so what’s the Eisenhower Matrix?

Here’s one visual:

Eisenhower Matrix Screen

The matrix here is “urgent vs. important,” with four potential outcomes:

Eisenhower Matrix Outcomes

If you like video explainers, here you go:

Let’s break this down a little bit.

Some virtually-undeniable facts about most offices

Every job is its own magical unicorn to some extent, but in general — and based on decades of management research — I can tell you a few things:

  1. Many organizations are bad at establishing clear priorities; this also applies to the managerial level.
  2. Most indicators of work stress have peaked in the past 5-10 years, as work-life balance indices have declined.
  3. The connector between “unclear priorities” and “work stress” should be evident, but what drives it along is managers who declare everything “urgent” regardless of whether it is or not.
  4. Human beings, as a general rule, don’t manage their time well.
  5. Most offices tend to reward, or hold in higher esteem, people that focus on the quantity of their work as opposed to the quality of its output.

That’s an interesting five-way intersection with a lot of unclear priorities, stress, and poor time management. In fact, you could argue time management is so important to the modern era that, eff it, we could even call the whole era “The Time Management Era.”

Here’s why the Eisenhower Matrix makes sense, too!

Look at the four possible outcomes in the second illustration above:

  • Do Now
  • Schedule
  • Delegate
  • Don’t Do

“Do Now” should stand on its own. Some stuff is legitimately urgent and top-of-mind. Go get it, grasshopper.

“Schedule” is everything to most people. “Hey, can we hop on a call? Schedule a meeting?” It’s probably largely overblown at this point, at least in American business culture, but a simple blog post ain’t gonna change that. I guess lawyers are in less meetings because of their hourly rate, but if all of us became lawyers, there might be additional issues.

“Delegate” is often misused by managers, but effective delegation has been shown to increase the salary of the one doing the delegating.

“Don’t Do” is the complex one. We all want to believe the work “must get done,” but 7 in 10 actions in most enterprise companies add no value. That’s a true stat. Some stuff just doesn’t need to be done, now or really ever, even if someone is yelling at you about it. Eisenhower won a damn World War. I think he’d know what stuff can be ignored.

So why isn’t an approach like this used more?

Couple of guesses:

  • People don’t know it exists.
  • “I’m so busy; I’ve just got to execute and don’t have time to plan.”
  • Focusing on how busy you are makes you feel high, and that’s fun.
  • Execution and being seen as “getting things done” matters more than quality execution, so heaping the “don’t do” tasks on your plate will get you more money.
  • “We’ve always done it this way.”
  • Most people view productivity ideas as thought leadership handjob work now thanks to Inc and Forbes, etc.
  • Again, very few people really that effective at time management or priority-setting.

The bottom line on the Eisenhower Matrix

82 percent of managers aren’t good at their jobs. At some (multiple) points, you’ll have a manager who throws no-context project after project at you, all deemed “I needed this yesterday.” In those moments, which are probably more normative than you’d like to admit, you absolutely need a system like the Eisenhower Matrix. Is it going to win you WW2? No. But it will get you to happy hour faster, more productively, and feeling good about what you do.

 

Ted Bauer

8 Comments

  1. Great post Ted.

    I like viewing decisions through the urgent/important lens too. My experience is that for most of my clients the urgent stuff is so enormous that the important stuff rarely gets a look in. But my clients are CEOs and business owners, not operational staff, so I am not denying the truth of your stats about productivity and workplace morale. What I do believe though is that this situation creates enormous opportunties for anyone who can painlessly solve this problem for business leaders.

    PS I am a fan of Eisenhower, but to be pedantic, he din’t win WW2. Neither did Britain. The inconvenient truth is that it was Russia; essentially by spilling their blood in the millions to buy time for the US and Britain and the Commonwealth to get two hands round Hitler’s neck.

    • Yea, but that’s where I used “conventional logic” instead of “reality.” Ha.

  2. The time management matrix of Stephey Covey ( 7 Habits of Effective People) ?

  3. This is a great tool for building group consensus over project priorities, too. First, have your group brainstorm a list of goals and bullets for the project — just brainstorm a list. Then create a quadrant but not boxes — create the Eisenhower Matrix with two axes of relative value of urgency and importance, up and down, right and left — and start throwing goals on it on sticky notes like it was a scatter graph.

    Open the goal placements up for discussion for risk/benefits, how easily something can be cleared off, what goals have dependencies, and so on. It’s amazing how fast individual bullets and goals start shaping up into a coherent plan that can be iterated as the urgent/important and urgent/less important bits get cleared in good order, with everyone’s clear understanding of their weight and importance, and then iteration can be revisited.

    I teach civics and leadership classes for young people — “How to Save the World in Your Spare Time” — drawing on stuff from a half century ranging from my dad’s experiences working with MLK and the SCLC, to my own career on the net starting at DEC in 1982, managing the earliest commercial multimedia development teams, and onward through my retirement a decade back from my position as founding executive director of The Tor Project.

    I often found myself working with groups of people with completely different skill sets and “realities.” This tool helped immensely to get people (rather literally) on the same page.

  4. As a manager of a small city department of 6 FT and some additional contract employees, I found this matrix to be interesting — so much so that I’m going to introduce it to our department at our bi-weekly staff meeting next week for discussion and for incorporation into individual work routine. It is reminiscent of the Steven Covey matrix, which in years gone by, was a useful tool to manage time resources.

    Thanks for sharing and thanks for the blog.

  5. Hello, I found an article yesterday about a fish in a dirty fish bowl. But I cant seem to find it now. May I please request you to kindly send it to my email. I think it was a very good article though I was not able to read it in full yesterday. Please… thank you very much

  6. This is a brilliant article Ted – you explain the Eisenhower Matrix really well!

    Unfortunately the Matrix can be quite time-consuming and difficult to manually practice every day.

    I just wanted to let you know we’re launching a new platform called eisedo inspired by the Eisenhower Matrix. It automatically prioritises your tasks for you, helping you to work more productively. You can register your interest at http://www.eisedo.com – the first 500 members to join will be given free access for life! 😄

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