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Are you always busy? The Eisenhower model offers a solution

You are busy all the time, putting in a lot of effort, crossing off tasks from your to-do list, but somehow feel unsatisfied. Does this sound familiar? Does the fun stuff in your schedule suffer at the expense of chores you do for others? Is the bulk of your day filled with ‘fire fighting’? If you recognize these challenges then you can use some help setting priorities. The Eisenhower model offers a solution!

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

Dwight D. Eisenhower

This article explains the Eisenhower model (also known as the Eisenhower matrix or Eisenhower quadrant). The model’s purpose is to help you prioritize your tasks. This helps you to focus on the tasks that will make a difference in the long run.

The Eisenhower model in 1 minute

The Eisenhower model is a method for prioritizing tasks. By assessing your tasks on 2 criteria, namely its urgency and its importance, it becomes easier to determine what to work on. These two criteria span 4 quadrants over which you can divide your tasks:

  • Important & urgent. Do these tasks immediately. It’s about necessity and adrenaline.
  • Important & not urgent. Schedule time to work on these tasks. It’s about satisfaction and quality.
  • Not important & urgent. Prevent yourself from working on these tasks and delegate them if possible. They are deceiving and annoying.
  • Not important & not urgent. These are the tasks you work on for too long, too often and too much. It’s about garbage and regret.

The following steps make for an effective application of the Eisenhower model:

  1. Place your tasks in the proper quadrant.
  2. Eliminate tasks in quadrants 3 and 4.
  3. Schedule time to work on tasks in quadrant 2.
  4. Evaluate and adjust.
The 4 quadrants of the Eisenhower model

Plot your tasks on the 4 quadrants of the Eisenhower model

Dwight D. Eisenhower was the 34th president of The United States and after his time in office, one of the positions he held was that of the first Supreme Commander of NATO. As these positions required him to clearly prioritize his workload, he came up with a method to handle this prioritization effectively. The model he came up with bears his name and to this day it is an often applied productivity tool. It helps easily prioritize tasks.

The model has 2 axes, namely the urgency axis and the importance axis. Urgency describes when a task is due. The urgency is defined by external factors, such as a colleague that requires your input by the end of the day.

Importance describes the importance of a task to you personally. This is determined by your personal values and what you stand for. These 2 axes combined result in a matrix with 4 quadrants, as shown in the figure below.

The 4 quadrants of the Eisenhower model
The four quadrants of the Eisenhower model

Quadrant 1 – Important & Urgent

Eisenhower model - quadrant 1

This quadrant contains those tasks that require your immediate attention. When your house is on fire, you don’t hesitate; you start extinguishing the flames!

The terms associated with this quadrant are necessity and adrenaline.

For some of us, the rush of continuously operating in quadrant 1 almost becomes an addiction. Is it a coincidence that those same people feel ill during the first days of their holiday? It is all about finding the right balance. For a healthy lifestyle, you should minimize this quadrant.

Shit is always 1, but 1 is not always shit

Quadrant 2 – Important & not urgent

Eisenhower model - quadrant 2

Here are all the tasks that are of value to you and that you should focus on. This is what leads to long-term fulfilment. As these tasks focus more on the long term, it requires discipline to work on them. Exercise is a great example. The short-term results are negligible, so it is not urgent. However, keep up the effort consistently for some weeks and your health and stamina will increase significantly (and so it is important).

This quadrant is about satisfaction and quality. Furthermore, wait long enough, and the tasks in quadrant 2 will shift to quadrant 1.

The quality of work in quadrant 1 is determined by the time spend on it in quadrant 2

Quadrant 3 – Not important & urgent

Eisenhower model - quadrant 3

Is there a constant gathering of colleagues at your desk, waiting to add their urgent tasks to your workload? Do you start the day with an overflowing inbox that you can’t possibly manage? This is the work that fits in quadrant 3. It is deceiving and annoying. The work seems important, but in reality, it is not. To whom is this the most important work that has to be done? Exactly, someone else! The major challenge is realizing that these tasks are of no importance to you. That makes them not (all) worth your attention.

The key is not to prioritize your schedule but to schedule your priorities

Stephen R. Covey

Quadrant 4 – Not important & not urgent

Eisenhower model - quadrant 4

It might come as a surprise that there are tasks that can be plotted in this quadrant. It is the “too” quadrant. Too long, too much, too often. Procrastination can be found here (watching TV all day while you should be doing something else). The tasks in this quadrant are known as garbage and are characterized by regret.

It should be noted that this does not mean that all items in quadrant 4 are wrong by default. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. You should also take the time to recharge your battery. Watching TV is harmless, too much TV is bad. A moment on the couch is fine, spending your whole week as a couch potato is not. Ultimately it is a matter of finding the right balance.

People are more important than things

The Eisenhower model looks nice, but how should I apply it?

How should you apply this model so that you reap its benefits daily? Thus far, the information mentioned provides a steady theoretical foundation to apply the model. The following three steps help to apply the Eisenhower model in your life.

  1. Determine what currently consumes most of your time
    Make a list of all your current tasks and place them in the Eisenhower model. This insight in itself can be very useful and clarifying as it provides an overview of what you are currently working on and what’s on your mind.
  2. Limit your to-do list
    There is a simple way to get more time for the things you deem important: minimize the flow of incoming tasks. The quick wins are in minimizing the tasks in quadrants 3 and 4. These tasks are unfulfilling and bring you no long-term satisfaction. Minimizing these tasks can come from either delegating or eliminating them. When you delegate the tasks, you should find someone else who does value them.
    The tasks in quadrant 1 are inevitable and should be taken care of first. You should, however, also make time for the tasks in quadrant 2 (see step 3 below). Determine what is important to you and focus on those tasks. It can be helpful to ask yourself the question “should I do this now?”. Also, note the effect of shifting the emphasis in this question.
  3. Make time for what matters
    Make room in your calendar to work on the tasks in quadrant 2. Schedule several blocks of one to two hours at the start of the week to work on the tasks that are satisfying and fulfilling. During those moments, turn off your phone (or put it away), work offline, and pick a workplace without interruptions. Don’t be too quick to conclude that this is impossible in your particular situation. You would be amazed how much your colleagues are willing to put up with once they see the results of your methods.

A task is as important as the person requesting it

Evaluate and adjust

Make time at the end of the week to evaluate that week. It would be even better to do this daily so that you can adjust your way of work more quickly. What percentage of time have you spent in de different quadrants? Did you manage to cross off some of the tasks of quadrant 2? Did you feel fulfilled at the end of the day? What can you improve next week to get even more important (and non-urgent) work done?

Once you have created this habit of getting important work done, start expanding your focus time. Does the first week not yield the results you would like? Hang in there and try again next week, until you start seeing (small) results. If you persevere, success is inevitable!

Perseverance is the hard work you do after you get tired of doing the hard work you already did

Newt Gingrich

Everything comes in waves

Once I applied this model myself, I noticed that a lot of my work consisted of the tasks in quadrant 3. This resulted in a lot of praise from colleagues, my days were filled and I did not have to think about my goals in the long term. Being at the start of my professional career will have also played a role in this.

As I applied the model more often, there were moments in which I felt very proud of myself, as I made weekly and daily schedules and felt like I had everything under control.
This of course was an illusion.

As I took on more responsibilities, my days filled up at an ever-increasing rate and I had to find a new balance. As with everything in life, it is all about finding the right balance. Times of chaos will arise, but there will also be moments in which you can regain control of your schedule.

My own challenge lies – and this might sound odd – in spending time in quadrant 4. I have an enormous focus and drive towards growth and continuous (personal) development, which makes it difficult for me to relax. For approximately 2,5 years this has improved significantly, without putting in a lot of effort: even by simply watching my sons playing, I can feel at ease and totally relaxed.
It is the little thing in life…

Get started with the Eisenhower model

The Eisenhower model helps get a grip on your busy schedule. Apply the model when making your weekly schedule or as work comes your way. By taking a hard look at the tasks coming your way, you can create more time for the important elements in your life. This ultimately leads to more fulfillment.

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