The Eisenhower or time management matrix improves productivity by teaching you how to prioritize better. This technique helps you learn which activities are worth your time and effort, and which ones aren’t.

And in a world where we all rush to keep up with our schedules, it is a priceless skill.

Here you will find an explanation of what the time management matrix is, how to use it, and how to think in quadrants.

1. What is the time management matrix?

The time management matrix, also known as the Eisenhower matrix, is a method that aims to improve how you prioritize tasks. You learn how to recognize your biggest priorities and to differentiate between those that have a long-term impact from those that don’t.

In practice, the time management matrix looks like this:

Eisenhower matrix

The matrix serves as a prioritization tool, rather than one for scheduling. So you will not see any timetables or deadlines here. Here is how the grid works as a time management tool, without any time specifications or calendars.

2. The elements of the Eisenhower matrix – explained

What are the four time quadrants?

When using the time management matrix, you sort the tasks from your to-do list into four groups. These groups are called quadrants because they are arranged in a grid. We have:

  • The 1st quadrant – important urgent tasks
  • The 2nd quadrant – important non-urgent tasks
  • The 3rd quadrant – unimportant urgent tasks
  • The 4th quadrant – unimportant non-urgent tasks

For some, sorting tasks will be easy and maybe obvious from the get-go. However, a lot of the time people mix up these four quadrants or find it difficult to distinguish where a task should go. Additionally, priorities will differ from person to person. While career growth may be crucial for A, B could find starting a family more important.

To properly apply the matrix’s rules, and minimize chances for mistakes, we strongly suggest looking at the following section.

The difference between IMPORTANT and URGENT

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

– Dwight D. Eisenhower

Once you learn to make the above-mentioned distinction, the entire matrix will be a piece of cake.

Urgent tasks need to be dealt with as soon as possible. They are time-sensitive and sometimes stressful, as they need our immediate attention.

Think of studying for an exam you’ve forgotten about, or trying to get an injured friend to a hospital.

On the other hand, important tasks allow you to take a step back, analyze your situation and plan your next move. They’re not time-sensitive, so there is no pressure that will affect your judgment.

Important tasks are those that concern your life goals, core values, etc. Starting a family, for example, planning a trip, or a workout routine to get healthier.

How many times have you heard someone can’t get their work done because they keep “putting out small fires”? If we focus only on time-sensitive tasks, we won’t see farther than what lies tomorrow.

This also begs the question:

How do I know what’s urgent and what’s important for me?

There is no universal formula we all can follow. To know which tasks are important and which are urgent to you, it’ s best to make a list. You can find many to-do list templates on our Clockify resource page, one of which should be perfect for you.

  • Write down your core values, your ideals, and life goals;
  • Think of the milestones you need to reach – they will most likely consist of activities that will be important.

They can be a way of recognizing and reminding yourself of what you are working for. Be it money, security, career advancement, experience, connections, providing for the family…

  • Watch your daily actions and identify activities and tasks that make you behave reactively.

These will normally be urgent tasks. Phone calls from family or the boss, discounts at your favorite store, malfunctions at home,…

How to place tasks into the four quadrants

Now that we’ve explained the urgent and important distinction, let’s see how they apply to tasks and activities. We’ll be using some common, everyday examples.

Quadrant 1, “Do” – Items that are important and urgent. 

These are the tasks that have a strict, very close time limit. For example, a math test is an urgent task for a student, and most other things will come secondary to it.

Other examples:

  • Emergencies, pressing issues

A small fire that you need to put out, a burst pipe, an injury.

  • A very close deadline

Something you’ve been putting off and now you’re in a rush to finish it.

  • Last-minute obligations

Family or work obligations, unannounced visitors, etc.

Time matrix illustration

Quadrant 2 , “Decide” – Items that are important, but not urgent. 

The second quadrant is for items that bring you long-term benefit, but have the perk of not being urgent. Think of decisions like wanting to lose weight, reading more, signing up for a course, etc. They are important for your wellbeing, but not critical, so they are usually pushed aside in favor of urgent tasks.

Other examples:

  • Long-term health goals

Working out or cooking healthy meals;

  • Career goals

Getting a promotion, changing companies, planning to start a business, finishing university, etc;

  • Personal goals

Improving relationships, starting a family, recreation, healthy eating.

Important to note: Putting off important tasks every time something urgent comes up runs the risk of making them urgent down the line. If a person puts off eating healthy for years because other things get in the way, health complications like obesity or diabetes will suddenly make it an urgent priority.

Time matrix illustration

Quadrant 3, “Delegate” – The items in this quadrant are urgent but unimportant. 

Normally, these are the tasks that you delegate to others. For example, when you can’t manage to pay your bills, you ask a partner or a housemate to do it for you. Or asking a coworker to take notes for you during a meeting because you have some emergency work.

Other examples:

  • Minor issues

Setting up meetings, scheduling certain appointments,

  • Household obligations

Grocery shopping, house chores, paying the bills, etc.

Time matrix illustration

Quadrant 4, “Eliminate” – The items are unimportant and not urgent.

The final quadrant contains tasks or obligations that are not in any way important. They have very little to no long-term benefit for your career, life or health. One example could be channel surfing in the afternoon, instead of working on your book, for example.

Other examples:

  • Time wasters

Checking (spending time on) social media, unimportant emails, etc.

  • Pleasant activities only

While rest is important, too many fun activities can have a counter-effect. Some of them need to be eliminated to leave room for important activities;

Important to note: Fourth quadrant activities are considered interruptions that feel urgent but have no way of contributing to our daily life, or future.

Time matrix illustration

3. How to weigh your priorities in the matrix

Consider the graph below a time management matrix cheat-sheet. For the more visual types, it could provide a more useful way of organizing their task inside the four quadrants.

time management matrix cheat-sheet

The time management matrix cheat-sheet

Keep in mind that only you can know which tasks are important for you, and which ones aren’t. By asking yourself “What do I need to do right away?”, “What is wasteful and needs to be eliminated?”, and “Which tasks do I need to do, and which ones can someone do for me?” 

Your focus during this process should be on WHAT instead of WHEN. Scheduling comes easier once you know your priorities.

Now that we know that the time management matrix is actually a tool for a better understanding of your activities, we should move on to its actual application.

4. An example of how the time management matrix works

The best way to understand how the matrix works is through an example.

Let’s say that there is a woman, named Julie, who is the head project manager for a medium-sized company. She delegates a lot of people, communicates with clients, reports to her bosses, has a husband and two children, and tries to live and eat healthily on top of all that. It sounds like a lot, and one could think that Julie couldn’t manage to do a lot of the things she plans out. However, by applying the matrix, she knows where her priorities are and how to work around changes to her plans

To start off, let’s say that Julie’s schedule looks like this:

Thursday, Feb 6th
8AM – 9AM Stand-up meeting + emails
9AM – 11AM Project progress, reports, and analyses
11AM – 11:30AM Lunch
11:30AM – 11:45AM Call Kevin Smith to ask about the school field trip next week
12:00PM – 2:05PM Client meeting / setting the groundwork for the new project
2:05PM – 2:20PM Coffee break + visit Sarah in her new office!
2:20PM – 4:00PM Staff meeting about the project
4:30PM – 5:00PM Take Jamey to the pediatrician for a check-up

(fingers crossed he’s recovered!)

5:30PM – 6:30PM Work out
6:30PM – 7:30PM Shower + dinner
7:30PM – 9:00PM Spend time with the kids
9:30PM – 10:00PM New episode of Gray’s Anatomy!

On its own, it looks fairly well planned out. However, Julie knows that there are chances that the schedule will change, so every morning, she reminds herself of that to avoid stressing out.

As expected, by the end of the day, Julie’s schedule ended up a little different. She had to make several adjustments to her tasks by applying the time management matrix to her tasks:

  • The ones in orange were put off for later
  • The ones in green were delegated
  • The ones in red were eliminated
Thursday, Feb 6th
8AM – 9AM Stand-up meeting + emails
9AM – 11AM Project progress, reports, and analyses
11AM – 11:30AM Lunch
11:30AM – 11:45AM Call Kevin Smith to ask about the school field trip next week
12:00PM – 2:05PM Client meeting / setting the groundwork for the new project
2:05PM – 2:20PM Coffee break + visit Sarah in her new office!
2:20PM – 4:00PM Staff meeting about the project
4:30PM – 5:00PM Take Jamey to the pediatrician for a check-up

(fingers crossed he’s recovered!)

5:00 PM – 5:20PM Groceries
5:30PM – 6:30PM Work out
6:30PM – 7:30PM Shower + dinner
7:30PM – 9:00PM Spend time with the kids
9:30PM – 10:00PM New episode of Gray’s Anatomy!

The Eisenhower matrix at work example

Here is how Julie applied the time management matrix to her thinking process:

  • She didn’t manage to get to the emails in the morning, as the stand-up meeting revealed some issues in the QA department. Brainstorming a solution was more important than the emails, so she labeled them as something to catch up with tomorrow;
  • The client she was supposed to meet at noon came half an hour earlier because they had certain questions they wanted to ask Julie. She knew that her son’s field trip was far off enough that she didn’t need the necessary information right away. She could call the teacher about it later during the day. Not wanting to make her client wait, she moved the meeting to 11:30 AM, and the phone call to when she gets home later;
  • At around 4:00 PM, it was clear that certain things on the project required immediate attention. However, Julie’s son has been sick for the past week and needs to go to the doctor’s for a check-up. Since her son’s health comes first, she delegates the task of running the meeting to her most trustworthy coworker. She can ask for a run down the next day;

The Eisenhower matrix at home example

  • Despite having an appointment, the doctor’s office was crowded, so Jamey and Julie had to wait a little longer for the check-up. Just to be on the safe side, Julie asks her husband to do the grocery shopping, because they might not make it;
  • Julie wants to improve her physical health, so she tries to work out three times a week. But as she came home, a coworker called about the meeting they had earlier. They needed approval for some decisions. Julie decided to reschedule her workout to video chat with some of the staff that stayed after work. Helping them finish up so they can go home was more important and urgent than her exercise today;
  • By 9:30 PM, Julie was exhausted from people, meetings, the doctor’s office and kids’ activities. She wanted nothing more than to sleep. Knowing it will do her much better than TV at that moment, she decided not to watch the show and go to bed immediately.

As we can see from Julie’s example, the time management matrix is there to teach us how to make easier calls concerning our schedules. She didn’t overthink the tasks or the consequences of her actions, because she was fully aware of them beforehand. She was able to make necessary changes smoothly, and with as little stress as possible.

5. What makes the time management matrix different from other techniques?

As mentioned above, this method has nothing to do with learning nifty new skills, and everything to do with changing your mindset for the better. It will help you understand your goals better, which activities wasted your time and which ones helped you get to where you are today. That way, you can schedule and plan better for the future.

After using it for some time, it will instill a positive transformation. You’ll notice how much easier it is to schedule your work, and how much better you’ve become at handling small crises and inevitable deadlines.

Here at Clockify, we’ve also researched the best time management techniques today. On the off chance the matrix doesn’t seem like your cup of tea, there is plenty more to choose from.

Instructions on how to use the time management matrix

This time management method was said to have been first used by Dwight D. Eisenhower (the 34th president of the United States). Only later was it popularized thanks to Steven Covey, presenting it in his book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”.

In the book, he discussed the idea of Four Generations of Time Management, and if we look at all four of them, we see that they’re actually instructions on how to properly employ the matrix.

Generation 1: Checklists and notes

The first generation represents the beginning step of your time management planning. All the tasks that need to be achieved are put on paper and overviewed. Everything should be organized based on the amount of time and energy they require.

Generation 2: Calendars and schedule

In the second generation, all the activities from the previous list should be written in a calendar or otherwise scheduled. This is a way of attempting to plan out the future to the best of our abilities.

Generation 3: Weekly plans

The third generation is there to narrow down the timeframe of the activities. You need to plan out your week, the goals and aims you wish to achieve, and begin thinking more seriously about a daily schedule within that week.

Generation 4: Relationships and results

While the first three generations were about managing activities and time, the fourth one is what really gives the whole process its meaning.

With a complete schedule and list of activities, you can begin to analyze which of those tasks are important or unimportant, urgent or non-urgent. It will help you realize which items on your list absolutely need to be done tomorrow, and which ones can be pushed back by a day if more urgent matters pop up.

6. What are the advantages and disadvantages of the time management matrix?

Like with every time management technique, Covey’s matrix has both benefits and drawbacks. It’s best to take both into account before deciding whether or not to use it. After all, you need a method that is perfect for you.

Advantages of the time management matrix:

  1. It makes you consider the importance of your tasks;
  2. It helps in reevaluating what is urgent and what isn’t;
  3. It teaches better self-awareness and helps you practice self-analysis;
  4. You become better at making split-second decisions.

Disadvantages of the time management matrix:

  1. You sort tasks only based on urgency and importance. It doesn’t account for resources, complexity or level of effort a task requires;
  2. Short, urgent tasks are left behind, even if their checking off the list helps with productivity and gaining momentum;
  3. The use of the matrix on a daily basis can be difficult and time-consuming;
  4. The grid can be overwhelming when too many tasks are present, so limiting them to 5 apiece will work best.

For those who are still unsure, there is a way to find out if Covey’s matrix is the right choice for you. Try it out for a week. Make a list of your tasks for the week, sort them inside the four-quadrant grid, then use a time tracker to track your progress throughout the week, and take notes of how certain situations made you feel.

As the trial draws to a close, take a look at the data you’ve accumulated.

Have you become more productive?

Was it easier to make decisions?

Were the things you considered urgent actually urgent? Or did they just waste your time?

In conclusion

In a way, trying to manage time has become a thing of the past. More and more coaches and productivity experts advise learning how to manage your priorities and resources. Because we can’t make more time. We can just use it smarter. So instead of trying to cram as many tasks as possible in a day, try prioritizing those that matter. The ones that work towards your self-improvement and progress. Covey’s time management matrix is an excellent teacher in that regard. And while it may not work for all, it’s a great stepping stone towards finding a more personalized, better-suited technique.