Addressing competing priorities is one of the biggest challenges in project management, especially when you’re short on time.
That’s where the Eisenhower Matrix can help. Also known as the Eisenhower Box, this simple task prioritization matrix lets you quickly categorize work based on importance and urgency. Find out how this simple tool can improve team productivity, streamline workflows, and build increased efficiency into your project plans.
What’s the Eisenhower Decision Matrix?
Ever have one of those days where you’re running around putting out fires, but project work still isn’t moving forward? This might be because you’re not striking the proper balance between urgent and important tasks. The Eisenhower time management method lets you distinguish between the two to refocus your energy and accomplish more.
The creator of this practice — Stephen Covey — was inspired by a 1954 speech by the 34th President of the U.S., Dwight D. Eisenhower. In it, he quoted an unnamed university president who said, “I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”
That quote inspired Stephen, author of “The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People,” to develop what’s now known as the Eisenhower Decision Matrix, which organizes tasks based on urgency and importance. Making that distinction helps prioritize tasks for peak productivity and efficient resource management.
The tool is simple. Divide a square into four quadrants. Label the top quadrants “Urgent” and “Not Urgent” and the left-side ones “Important” and “Not Important.” Then, categorize each task into one of the four quadrants:
- Urgent and important: Work you must accomplish sooner rather than later.
- Important but not urgent: Tasks you can complete according to a schedule.
- Urgent but not important: Items you should delegate.
- Neither urgent nor important: Unnecessary tasks you can remove.
Urgent versus important tasks
Establishing your urgent/important matrix may seem straightforward, but it’s dependent on understanding the distinctions between these two task types. It’s essential to correctly differentiate between the two in order to maximize your task and time management efforts.
Here’s the difference:
- Urgent tasks require your immediate attention. They’re unavoidable, and you must address them without delay, or they could negatively impact the project. The longer you put them off, the more stress they’ll add to your timelines, resources, and personnel.
- Important tasks help the team achieve the project’s long-term goals. But they’re not always urgent, meaning you can complete them at a different time.
How to use the Eisenhower Matrix
Now that you understand the difference between urgency and importance, it’s time to categorize your project action items into the appropriate quadrants.
Place tasks that are both urgent and important into the first quadrant. These high-priority items may affect your ability to deliver your project on time. Consider redeploying staff and resources to resolve them ASAP.
These tasks are time-sensitive and necessary for steady project progress. Completing them requires careful planning to allocate the staff and resources needed to ensure your team meets the project’s long-term goals and delivers work on time.
These tasks may be unimportant to you, but your team still needs to complete them. Consider delegating them to another teammate, department, or, if you have the budget, a third-party provider with the skills necessary to complete the work according to schedule. Handing off these tasks lets your team focus on more important work.
Whatever tasks are left over, add them to the final quadrant — they’re not mission-critical to the successful delivery of the project. You can eliminate these items or add them to a nice-to-have list of project features. Team members can work on them when they have some availability, which, admittedly, seldom happens.
Tasks with immediate consequences and pressing deadlines
Tasks that contribute to the project’s success, but with extended deadlines
Tasks you can delegate to another teammate, department, or third-party
Time-wasting tasks that are a distraction from more important work
Best practices for task prioritization
Consider implementing these tips to maximize your matrix’s efficacy.
Add some color
Color code your tasks to quickly visualize the high-priority jobs on your “To-do” list and organize them into the correct quadrant. You might use the following color coding, as we did above:
- Green – Q1: Highest priority
- Yellow – Q2: High priority
- Blue – Q3: Low priority
- Red – Q4: Not a priority
The colors help you plan your day at a glance and provide transparency around which tasks your team should prioritize over others.
Limit the number of tasks in each quadrant
If your action plan is overflowing with work, consider limiting the number of tasks you add to each quadrant to 10, taking into account resources and project dependencies when deciding which tasks to add. As you close one item off, add the next to ensure work keeps moving forward without overwhelming yourself and your team.
Create separate lists
Success often requires a team to divide and conquer. Instead of overloading one matrix with everything, consider creating separate matrices:
- Personal lists
- Team activities
- Work by project stage
- Product development
Choose whichever type allows for the greatest visibility and planning ease. Be sure to place the priority list in a central location accessible to all team members and encourage them to review it regularly.
But first, eliminate
Start your task prioritization by first addressing the items in Quadrant 4. If you can eliminate unnecessary tasks from your list, do so before moving on to Quadrants 1, 2, and 3. You’ll speed up the prioritization process, freeing time in your schedule to focus on other tasks.
An Eisenhower Matrix example
To thoroughly understand how to use the Eisenhower Matrix in project management, consider the following example.
Prioritize tasks like a pro with Roadmunk by Tempo
Now that you’ve completed your Eisenhower Matrix, keep your project team on task and your stakeholders up-to-date with a little help from Roadmunk by Tempo. This tool helps you create a visual and flexible roadmap that offers up-to-date project insights for everyone involved. And with JIRA-enabled Timesheets, you can track hours worked and make sure everyone meets their priorities.