What is the Eisenhower Matrix, which categories does it define and which principles apply?
Doing important and urgent things
The Eisenhower Matrix is a method of time management to distinguish between important and unimportant, urgent and non-urgent tasks. It goes back to the former US President and General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who tried “not to do things correctly, but to do the proper things”. It is a tool for increasing effectiveness (“Doing the right things”) and not a tool for increasing efficiency (“Doing things right”). Alternatively, the Eisenhower Matrix is also known as the Four Quadrant Method, Eisenhower Method, Eisenhower Principle or Eisenhower Box.
The aim of the Eisenhower Matrix is to sort and prioritise tasks according to their importance and urgency. To do this, two questions must be answered for each task:
- How important is the task?
- How urgent is the task?
To answer the questions, the matrix defines four categories:
- A: important and urgent
- B: important, but not urgent
- C: urgent, but not important
- D: not important and not urgent
Principles of the Eisenhower Matrix
The principles of the the Eisenhower Matrix are relatively simple:
- Important tasks are those that are directly related to defined goals.
- Urgent tasks cannot be postponed and should ideally be completed immediately.
- Important and urgent tasks should be completed by yourself as quickly as possible.
- Urgent, but not important tasks should – if possible – be delegated or automated. If this is not possible, they should be completed after the urgent and important tasks and before the important and non-urgent tasks.
- The personal realisation of important but non-urgent tasks can be planned and scheduled. The tasks themselves are prioritised lower than the important and urgent tasks, so that the realisation only takes place afterwards.
- Non-important and non-urgent tasks should not be processed. Depending on the context, they can be archived or completely deleted.
The Eisenhower Principle does not require any prior knowledge of the application. Separate tools – in addition to a sheet of paper and a pen – are also not required. The ideal result would be lists of tasks that have to be completed immediately, that can be planned, that should be delegated and that can be easily ignored or deleted.
Advantages and disadvantages of the Eisenhower Matrix
The Eisenhower principle offers several advantages:
- It’s easy to understand and apply. It does not require any special previous knowledge and no training period.
- Separate aids – besides a sheet of paper and a pen – are not necessary. The result is ideally lists of tasks that need to be done immediately, that can be planned, that should be delegated and that can be easily ignored or deleted.
- The visualisation is simple, creates order and provides a clear structure for the completion of tasks.
In theory, the Eisenhower principle sounds simple, but in practice there are always challenges. Here you will find a list of possible drawbacks:
- People often work in agile, possibly even spontaneous or chaotic environments, in which new tasks are constantly being created, so that time planning usually does not last.
- The classification simplifies the reality, especially since the effort to create a valid categorisation is much greater than it seems.
- The handling of concrete dates is not explicitly addressed.
- Within the four quadrants of the matrix there are also gradations, so that an A may become an A1, an A+ or an AAA.
- People are not machines that can perform every task with maximum concentration. This leads to, for example, a C task being performed before an A or B task.
- When working with tasks, new tasks arise that can be even more important than other important and urgent tasks, depending on the perspective and context.
- Not all people like to work in a clocked, one hundred percent structured way. This is a contradiction in terms, especially when it comes to creative activities.
- The matrix is not suitable as a working tool because of the number of tasks; at best, the principles function as a mental construct or as a tool when working with task lists.
- The number of tasks leads to a backlog of tasks despite the corresponding categorisation; too many tasks remain too many tasks.
Criticism of the Eisenhower principle
Some publications mention two prerequisites for the application of the Eisenhower Matrix: The ability to plan tasks independently and the right to delegate tasks. These two prerequisites are obvious and it is not surprising that the Eisenhower Method is often simply declared to be “common sense”. There is little objection to this.
Furthermore, the Eisenhower principle does not claim to be able to structure and solve all tasks by magic. On the contrary: people can and should continue to judge individually what consequences arise from their actions or the postponement of actions. For example, an employee can decide to complete a task because he fears anger if he does not complete it as quickly as possible or because he expects praise. The individual motives are not addressed in the categorisation of tasks. Therefore – and this would actually be a point of criticism – in practice it is often not enough for employees to always prioritise their tasks individually. Here it is advisable to exchange information in teams, as is usual, for example, with Sprint Planning in Scrum.
Whether Dwight D. Eisenhower practiced the method himself is controversial.
The four-quadrant method marks the quadrants with critical and due soon, critical but not due soon, not critical and uncategorised.