Prioritize Your Life in 5 Minutes: An Introduction to the Eisenhower Decision Matrix

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If you’re reading this blog post, I imagine that you, like me, are pretty busy. You’ve got a lot on your mind, a lot on your to-do list, and you’re not sure how to prioritize your time and attention to the things that really matter.

Having introduced the 80/20 Rule (also known as the Pareto Principle, “law of the vital few,” etc.), I’d like to now introduce you to its powerful partner: The Eisenhower Decision Matrix.

The Eisenhower Box is worth your time because it will help you to perform an 80/20 Analysis on your life.

That is, it will help you zero-in on the “vital few” – the top 20% or so of your tasks, habits, etc. that are responsible for 80% of the positive outcomes in your life.

It will also help you to see the “worst few” – the bottom 20% of tasks, habits, etc. that are neither important nor urgent.

Put simply, the Eisenhower Decision Matrix will help you to get a clear view of your priorities. If you use it and act upon it, it will help you to manage your time more effectively.


Introducing the Eisenhower Decision Matrix (AKA “The Eisenhower Box”)

Eisenhower Decision Matrix

First, let’s answer a potential question.

Why is it named after Eisenhower?

Great question! To be honest, this method/tool isn’t universally attributed to Eisenhower (for example, in my 1989 edition of Stephen R. Covey’s classic, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People [affiliate link], Covey doesn’t mention Eisenhower, though he discusses the tool under Habit 3: Put First Things First).

However, the tool is widely named after Eisenhower, because of an unverified quote that is often attributed to Eisenhower. Maybe you’ve heard it before:

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


How to Use the Eisenhower Decision Matrix

What you will need: Paper and a Pen(cil). (See my Resources page for my favorite notebook and pen recommendations.)

1. Perform a “Brain Dump” – Write Down All The Things You Spend Your Time On

That’s right, just take a blank page and start writing down any and everything that you can think of that you spend time on. This can include specific items on your to-do list, but also more general things like “grocery shopping,” “doing laundry,” or “scrolling through Facebook.”

2. Draw a Large, Blank Eisenhower Box, and Fill It In

Eisenhower Decision Matrix

Again, here’s what a basic Eisenhower Box looks like. Draw a blank one on a sheet of paper. (Probably a separate sheet of paper if you’ve surfaced a lot of things in your “Brain Dump”!)

What’s Important? What’s Urgent?

  • IMPORTANT: this item contributes to your purpose, goals, mission, values in life, etc.
  • URGENT: there is a pressing reason why you need to take care of this item SOONER rather than LATER!

How to Decide What Goes in Each Quadrant

If you have a hard time filling in all four quadrants of the Eisenhower box at a time, don’t worry! This gets easier with practice.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to what you should do if you find filling out the box difficult:

  • First, ask yourself for each item from your brain dump: Is this important or not? Is this making a meaningful contribution to my life?
  • Then, separate the items into two categories: Important and Unimportant.
  • Take a look at each of the Important items and ask: Is this urgent or not? Is there a pressing reason I need to take care of this now/soon?
  • Separate the Important items into two categories: Important/Urgent and Important/Non-Urgent.
  • Place the Important/Urgent items into Quadrant 1, the top-left corner of the Eisenhower Box.
  • Place the Important/Non-Urgent items into Quadrant 2, the top-right corner of the Eisenhower Box.
  • Now, take a look at each of the Unimportant items you listed and ask: Is this urgent or not?
  • Separate the Unimportant items into two categories: Unimportant/Urgent and Unimportant/Non-Urgent.
  • Place the Unimportant/Urgent items into Quadrant 3, the bottom-left corner.
  • Place the Unimportant/Non-Urgent items into Quadrant 4, the bottom-right corner.

Voila! You’ve now filled-out your very first Eisenhower Matrix!

3. Prioritize Your Time Accordingly

It might not seem like it now, but that completed box is actually a POWERFUL time management tool, if you’re willing to use it. Here’s how.

Quadrant 1 (Important/Urgent): Take Care of These Things As Soon As Possible

There’s no getting around it, the tasks/items in Quadrant 1 need to be taken care of, and they need to be taken care of soon. So, take care of them! These tasks should go on your to-do list. The quicker you can deal with what’s in Quadrant 1, the quicker you can get to Quadrant 2, which is where you want to spend most of your time (that’s why it’s highlighted in yellow in the pictures above, by the way).

Quadrant 2 (Important/Non-Urgent): Spend More Time on These Things

In 80/20 terms, Quadrant 2 contains you’re top 20% of tasks, habits, etc. Although they’re not urgent, like Quadrant 1 or Quadrant 3, that’s actually the key to their long-term importance. These things in Quadrant 2 will have an outsized impact on the rest of your life.

You, therefore, should structure your life to spend as much time as possible in Quadrant 2. 

This would include things like:

  • Prayer & Scripture
  • Goal Setting
  • Planning
  • Scheduling
  • Healthy Diet
  • Exercise

Of course, this requires a bunch of other skills, such as the ability to schedule, delegate, say “no” to things, etc. But, as a first step, it’s helpful to have Quadrant 2 in mind, so that you know what to shoot for.

Quadrant 3 (Unimportant/Urgent): Spend Less Time on or Delegate These Things

In my personal opinion, Quadrant 3 is the most complicated to handle. After all, these tasks are important to somebody out there, otherwise, they wouldn’t be considered “urgent.” So, you can’t always just delete Quadrant 3 tasks from your life with little consequence (otherwise they would be in Quadrant 4).

Common Quadrant 3 tasks include:

  • Email
  • Meetings
  • Phonecalls/TXTs

So, I agree with the advice of many others out there that you should seek to DELEGATE as many tasks as possible in Quadrant 3. Your goal should be to shrink Quadrant 3 and devote that extra time to Quadrant 2.

Quadrant 4 (Unimportant/Non-Urgent): Stop Doing (Most Of) These Things

Finally, Quadrant 4. If you’re like me, you found the following in this category:

  • Facebook
  • Instagram
  • Twitter
  • Netflix

Most people advise that you DELETE these tasks, habits, etc. from your life. And, they have a good point: these things, by your own admission, are neither important nor urgent!

However, I DO think that there is a place for at least some recreational Quadrant 4 activities in a life well-lived. After all, the Bible teaches us that rest/Sabbath is important for the Christian life. We’re not designed to be productive robots who don’t know how to relax and enjoy the good gifts God gives us. Psalm 127:1-2 comes to mind:

Unless the Lord builds the house,
    the builders labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city,
    the guards stand watch in vain.
In vain you rise early
    and stay up late,
toiling for food to eat—
    for he grants sleep to those he loves.

That being said, you should only spend time on Quadrant 4 activities if you could, on that occasion, honestly place them under “healthy rest and relaxation” in Quadrant 2.

If you can’t do that in good conscience, then you should delete Quadrant 4 items from your life with ruthless abandon. (This is why I’ve quit Facebook, by the way. More on that in a later post.)


What You Should Do Next

  1. Take 5 minutes in the next 24 hours to draw up your first Eisenhower Matrix. Don’t worry if it’s not perfect/comprehensive.

  2. Accomplish one thing from Quadrant 1

  3. Spend time doing one thing from Quadrant 2

  4. Delegate/shrink one thing from Quadrant 3

  5. Eliminate one thing from Quadrant 4

  6. Share this post with one person who could benefit from reading it

  7. Let me know how this process goes in the comments below!

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