What Is The Eisenhower Box?

The Eisenhower Box, also known as the Eisenhower Matrix, the Eisenhower Decision Matrix, the Eisenhower Method, the Time Management Matrix or the Urgent-Important Matrix, is a simple, yet effective, time management tool that can help you with decision-making and prioritizing your tasks to get more done in your day.

An inability to make decisions and prioritize your tasks each day can have a hugely negative effect on your time management, so understanding how to use the Eisenhower Box is a really useful skill to learn.

And I’m going to show you how to do that right now.

Why the ‘Eisenhower Box’?

First of all, a bit of background. Why is it even called the Eisenhower Box?

Well, if you search online, you’ll find claims that it was named after Dwight D, Eisenhower, the 34th President of the United States, who apparently used this method to organize and prioritize his workload. (He’s the gentleman I have popping out of the box in the image above. Do you like what I did there?)

However, I can’t find any evidence that the man himself actually used this exact kind of matrix to make decisions.

Eisenhower had a military background and during his presidency was big on staff organization, delegating authority and administration, so it is not unlikely that he may have used a similar principle of separating the important from the urgent.

There is also a quote made in a speech by Eisenhower in 1954 that is often cited in relation to the “Eisenhower Principle” and organizing the important and the urgent:

“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

As far as I can make out though, the system was really made famous by the late Stephen R. Covey in his international best-selling book, The Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People (1989). I will be reviewing this book soon.

In this book, it is actually referred to as the Time Management Matrix. There is no mention of Eisenhower and I have never found any attribution to Eisenhower by Covey, so it is a mystery to me how exactly this tool become known as the Eisenhower Box and who first coined it.

I guess that’s the thing with the internet – incorrect information can spread pretty quickly and before you know it, it becomes officially accepted.

But anyway, let’s not get too bogged down in the etymology of the thing – let’s get in there and take a look at how it works!

How To Use The Eisenhower Box?

Good time management is hard, but the Eisenhower Box can make things a lot more simple by helping you to organize your To-Do List in a way that will help you complete it in a more time-efficient manner.

Check out this post: Why Time Management Is Hard

This strategy uses a four-quadrant matrix like the one below to organize and prioritize any given list of tasks you have. It can apply to any activity and is not constrained to work-related tasks.

Eisenhower Matrix
The Eisenhower Box / Time Hack Hero

The tasks are organized by urgency and importance and placed in the relevant quadrant.

Before we continue, it is crucial to recognize the difference between what is important and what his urgent.

Urgent is something that requires immediate action. But something can be urgent but not important or important, but not urgent.

You consider the task at hand and decide which if the four categories it best fits into:

1. Urgent and Important
2. Important, but Not Urgent
3. Urgent, but Not Important
4. Neither Important, nor Urgent

So, let’s break that down into what it actually means in a real-life situation.

Quadrant I is the top left quadrant (Important and Urgent) is the crises or the “do it first and do it now” quadrant.

These activities tend to be what you might call more reactive and could be anything from a kitchen fire to a phone call, an overdue project or dealing with an important client. They may arise suddenly and unexpectedly or could be tasks that weren’t urgent previously, but as a result of procrastination, may have now become very urgent.

The exact nature of an important and urgent task will depend on the context and may be unique to whatever activity or business you’re involved with, but the commonality is that there will usually be some kind of negative consequence if these tasks are put off or neglected and not dealt with immediately or at least, very soon.

Action required for tasks in this quadrant: get them done before anything else.

If you find that you have a lot of tasks in this quadrant, a good tip to make your life easier in future is to identify which of them could have been foreseen or whether they are perhaps the result of procrastination and then in future, schedule tasks like this well in advance so that they don’t become urgent again.

Quadrant II, the top right quadrant is for tasks that are important, but not urgent. Important is not the same as urgent. Think of the important-but-not-urgent stuff in terms of a long-term payoff. They don’t have a pressing deadline and there are no real serious consequences if you don’t address them immediately, but completing them maybe beneficial to you in some way – either now or more likely, in the future.

Examples of tasks that might live here include, exercising, relaxing, developing skills (maybe an instrument or studying), spending time with friends and family, etc.

Action required for tasks in this quadrant: schedule time to complete asap.

Quadrant III, the bottom left quadrant, is for anything that is urgent, but not important. In other words, tasks that need your urgent attention and can often be resolved quickly, but have very little meaningful impact on your work or life.

In a work-related environment, these tasks might include most emails, phone calls and meetings. We are often under pressure to handle this type of activity immediately, but they are pretty insignificant in the grand scheme of things.

Check out this post: Time Management Tips For Work

Most of us waste a lot of time doing these tasks because we mistake them for being important. However, more often than not they are activities that could be delegated to someone else.

Action required for tasks in this quadrant: delegate to someone else.

Finally, Quadrant IV, in the bottom right is for everything that is not important and not urgent.

These are your main time-wasters right here.

They distract you from the tasks you should be doing and the usual culprits include watching TV, checking social media notifications, gossiping, gaming, surfing the Net and getting lost in those random YouTube channels – you know, the ones where you eventually snap out of your daze and in a slightly bemused state, ask yourself, “How the heck did I end up here?”

Sometimes we end up putting things in this quadrant that are actually important, but not urgent, such as exercise, time for self-care, etc., but don’t make that mistake. Looking after yourself is very important and should be scheduled as such.

Action required for tasks in this quadrant: Ditch them.

Covey points out that effective people stay out of Quadrants III and IV and try to reduce the size of Quadrant I by spending the majority of their time in Quadrant II. He states that “Quadrant II is the heart of effective personal management.”

So if you want to be getting good with your time management, that is what you need to be aiming for.

Here’s an example of what a working Eisenhower Box for a given day might look like in real life.

Eisenhower Box working example / Time Hack Hero

Time Hack Hero Takeaway

The Eisenhower Box is a very simple, yet effective way to prioritize your To-Do Lists and can really help you make decisions, quickly identify the tasks you should focus on and take control of your time management.

Why not try it out for yourself and see how you go?

You can go ‘old skool’ and use this template like the example above [coming soon!] or check out an Eisenhower App like this one for Android or this one for iOS.

Recommended further reading:

The Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey (1989)
First Things First by Stephen R. Covey, A. Roger Merrill, Rebecca R. Merrill (1996)

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