Stay productive with President Eisenhower’s method

Long before David Allen taught the world how to get things done, US President Dwight D. Eisenhower was getting things done with a system all his own.

He was highly organized and prioritized his tasks and responsibilities while serving as president, a five-star general, supreme commander of the Allied Forces in Europe, and supreme commander of NATO. Eisenhower devised an effective system that’s simple enough to be executed with a pencil and a piece of paper and effective enough to, well, run the free world. It’s called the Eisenhower Matrix.

Why use it?

First and foremost, it answers the question, “What should I do now?” There have been times when I’ve sat at my desk with an overwhelming list of projects and to-do items. They all seem important in those first few moments, and it’s often hard to be objective enough to identify what is urgent and what isn’t. The Eisenhower Matrix formalizes that process.

The Matrix also forces you to carefully consider potential projects. Is it life-sustaining work that will pay the bills or something that might be fun (and devour billable hours)? Alternatively, will this new opportunity or idea rejuvenate your productive, creative self, or lead you down a rabbit hole of avoidance? In other words, you get an answer to the question: “Is this worth doing?”

Finally, when you’ve got your tasks written down and plugged into the matrix, it’s very easy to identify urgent tasks at a glance. As the president often said:

“What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.”

Here’s How it Works.

So what is it? The Eisenhower Matrix categorizes tasks across a 2×2 matrix. The categories are:

  1. Important and urgent. Tasks in this category are both urgent and time sensitive. They must be completed as soon as possible. Examples might include a report due within the next 48 hours or last-minute tax preparations. This is the stuff that keeps food on the table and a roof over your head.
  2. Important and not urgent. These tasks are to be handled immediately after those in quadrant number one. They’re less time sensitive, but you should be prepared to complete them after any crises in quadrant one have been solved. Examples include long-term financial planning and physical exercise.
  3. Not important but urgent. It’s odd to consider something that’s unimportant to be urgent, but this happens more than you might think. Administrative tasks are a good example of items that fall into this category. You might not want to file your reports with your boss each Friday and it’s even okay if you miss a few each year, but today is Friday and you should get the report done by the end of the day.
  4. Unimportant and not urgent. I reserve this area for tasks that aren’t related to work and don’t affect my income. I need to get them done, but there’s no time-crunch in place. Scheduling an oil change for the car is a good example.

Keep Track of it All

Now that you’ve decided what goes where, it’s time to keep track of it all. You’re in luck because it couldn’t be simpler. A 3×5 index card (I love 3×5 index cards) is perfect! Just draw the four lines and add the day’s tasks.

Notebooks are great, too, for keeping track of your Matrix. I’m a fan of Field Notes Brand, but really anything will do.

If you’re tech-savvy, there are a couple applications you can employ. There’s one called, appropriately, Eisenhower. It’s totally free and runs in almost any web browser, so it doesn’t matter if you use a Mac or a PC. The makers of Eisenhower have also released a companion iPhone app ($2.99).

Priority Matrix is another software solution that’s available for Windows, Mac, iPhone and iPad. I’ve been using it with success this winter. It’s really nice to glance down at my index card and know what must be done and when.

16 Comments for “Stay productive with President Eisenhower’s method”

  1. posted by Chip Warden on

    I never knew this was from former President Eisenhower. When I was a manager at Borders (RIP), this was a standard tool for all supervisors and managers.

  2. posted by purpleBee on

    I didn’t know this was from Eisenhower either.

    It a good system but it assumes that you have either analysed what things you have to do and have broken them down, or that you have individual tasks that need no further analysis.

    I like to combine this matrix with project lists. So I have a project (eg organise and clean kitchen) which I then break down into steps or major parts. Those parts go into the matrix above

  3. posted by Jaimie on

    This is fantastic. I like to make lists to help me get things done, but this helps to sort things out by priority.

  4. posted by Jude on

    And here I thought Steven Covey thought it up. Anyway, this system has never worked for me, and that’s because of something I realized as a single mother of 3–what’s unimportant, what Alan Lakein called “Fun Cs” in his time management system–is very important. Watching YouTube videos, reading blogs, and posting tweets all bring good mental health, at least in moderation. When you’re a single working mom, you have to schedule in that kind of recreation, and if you don’t, you’ll become depressed or slightly crazy. I hate the Covey method, with its emphasis on the important task. In fact, I’d say it’s downright wrong (at least for me).

  5. posted by Jia on

    @Jude, surely if those recreational things are important to you (and it sounds like they are) then they would go on the Important side. Problem solved!

  6. posted by Les Hutchinson on

    I use this method as well (like others unaware of the link to Eisenhower).
    I’ve found that I use the ‘important’ dimension for longer-term panning, and the ‘urgency’ for my daily to do list – it works for me.

    I blogged about how I use it recently: (http://endlesslyrestless.wordp.....important/).

  7. posted by Roberta on

    Using online methods for productivity don’t work for me; I ordered Field Notes (thanks for the tip) because one of the best, past methods of tracking/eval. important/urgent, etc. was with those small, flip books next to my landline phone. Thinking things through (but not too much) and physically writing them down helps me most.

  8. posted by Jen on

    I had no idea this was Eisenhower’s discovery! I have been using this system for years thanks to a design firm I worked at. It keeps me organized and really does put things into perspective

  9. posted by Jenny on

    What a timely post! I’m currently reading First Things First, so I’ve been thinking about this method a lot recently (and also didn’t know the origin). The tricky thing for me is that EVERYTHING feels important. I created a matrix and went through my past week’s activities and couldn’t think of ONE thing that fit in the “not important, urgent” quadrant…and that’s not because I’m so good at prioritizing. This is definitely something I struggle with. So, the book First Things First is helping me to create my personal mission statement and hopefully THAT will in turn help me to decipher what’s REALLY important compared to what I think is important.

    @Jia, I think you make a great point that what’s important to one person may not be important to someone else…and, I imagine, what’s important to me today may not be important to me a few years from now. Any other resources on this would be great- thanks!

  10. posted by Jenny on

    One more thing- thank you for letting us know about the Priority Matrix. I just purchased it and it seems like it will be REALLY useful!!

  11. posted by Kerrie on

    I also didn’t realize this was Eisenhower’s idea, I just remember it from Covey’s book. Unlike Jude, however, I have found it extremely beneficial to me. I thought the whole point from Covey was that we don’t spend enough time in the “important, not urgent” quadrant, that we should work on those things before they become urgent and we function in a state of chaos, and that we not put the unimportant ahead of the rest, thus further potentially creating more chaoes. And in my opinion I would list Jude’s example of personally enriching recreational activities as falling in the “important, not urgent” quadrant.

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    posted by Another Deb on

    In another aspect, a time diary could be built using this system. You can analyze where you are using your time. I have trouble getting motivated for the most important tasks and spend a lot of time procrastinating in the “not importand, not urgent” box.

  13. posted by Jen on

    I also have used this at a previous job and never knew it was Eisenhower’s idea. I always had a really hard time wrapping my head around the “not important, urgent” category but reading some of the comments here has helped a bit. I think it’s just a matter of classifying your to-do list though, and identifying those tasks that are and are not important so that you can prioritize accordingly. The idea of spending real time on the “not urgent” categories is really interesting, thus preventing those tasks from becoming urgent (case in point, oil changes).

  14. posted by Zac on

    I literally use this system everyday. I pair it with rememberthemilk.com to create a version I can carry around on my iphone. I picked up this system at a Franklin Covey time management seminar. Not to echo everyone else, but I had no idea of the Eisenhower connection. That said, this system is how I prioritize everything. The vertical and horizontal axis metrics can be changed based on the situation to allow for you to make more informed decisions on topics that can’t be measured by importance or urgency. My alternate grid has always been heart and stress. Top left box is activities that enrich and deepen my relationship with my loved ones and improve my mentality. Bottom right are things that take me away from my family and stress me out. Obviously this grid make assumptions about what’s fundamentally important to you and is designed for use in one’s personal life, but it helps contextualize how you spend your time. I always try to live “above the line”… this system really changed my life.

  15. posted by Paul G on

    One of the things easily forgotten when thinking about Covey’s material is the idea of the different roles we have. Each role becomes a different filter through which we prioritize. Jude pointed out that as a single mother, certain distractions are important to her mental health. Hurray for such insight. But, if she is on the job, the same activity may land in a different quadrant.

  16. posted by Maureen on

    I remember reading about this in Steven Covey’s book, too. I’m glad to see Eisenhower is getting the credit he deserves for this idea!

    As one other person commented, I remember Covey emphasizing that the “Important and Not Urgent” items should actually take priority over both of the “Urgent” categories. He said our society places too much emphasis on urgency — we put the “fires” of life ahead of the things that truly matter (e.g., playing games with our kids, taking time out for self-care, spending time with family/friends, etc). Covey advises to put those those “non-urgent” items at the top of our to-do lists.

    Easier said than done, I know!

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