The Time Management Matrix: Making The Best Use Of Your Time

Updated December 24, 2018

Reviewer Rashonda Douthit , LCSW

"Plans are nothing; planning is everything." - President Dwight D. Eisenhower

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You get 24 hours each day, and the experts tell you that you should spend 8 of them sleeping. That leaves 16 full hours to get everything done that needs to be done. So, why does it always seem like there are NEVER enough hours in a day? The answer to that dilemma lies in how you manage your time. One tried and proven, yet simple strategy you can employ is the time management matrix. It is designed to help you prioritize your responsibilities so that you can get through all of them with as little stress as possible.

However, the time management matrix is not a magic button. It won't add more hours to your day, or give you superhuman speed to complete your jobs with time to spare. It also won't put everyone else in a trance while you take your time working on your tasks without distractions - it's not THAT kind of matrix! What is great about it is that it can work for anyone, but there are certain attitudes and skills you will need to develop to ensure that it works for you.

We'll start off by explaining how the matrix itself and its connection to the 34th President of the United States. We'll follow up by highlighting the benefits of the matrix and giving you a few helpful pointers on how to make the best use of the matrix to get your "To Do" list done!

What Is The Time Management Matrix?

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The time management matrix is often referred to as the "Eisenhower Matrix," "Eisenhower Box" or "Eisenhower Decision Matrix." That's because President Dwight "Ike" Eisenhower (1890 - 1969) is credited with creating it and is said to have used it during his presidency. Another name often associated with popularizing the matrix is Stephen Covey (1932 -2012). He was an educator, author, and businessman who inspired others with his ideas on effectiveness and leadership. Covey discusses the usefulness of the Eisenhower Matrix in his book "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People."

The Eisenhower matrix is a square divided into four quadrants or smaller squares (two at the top and two at the bottom). It uses four labels: Important, Not Important, Urgent and Not Urgent. The overlapping labels for each quadrant result in the following arrangement.

  • Quadrant One (top left) - Important and Urgent
  • Quadrant Two (top right) - Important but Not Urgent
  • Quadrant Three (bottom left) - Urgent but Not Important
  • Quadrant Four (bottom right) - Not Urgent and Not Important

We often confuse what is meant by "important" and "urgent," thinking they are the same. The time management matrix, however, makes understanding the difference between them a necessity. Those two words are responsible for taking the matrix beyond being a simple time management chart where you just list the activities you wish to cover in a set period.

Important: These items are essential to you achieving a set goal. You view them as being very significant, whether personally or to someone you care about.

Urgent: These items need to be done straight away, usually because delaying them will have instant repercussions on other items or areas of your life.

You complete the matrix by adding each of your tasks to a quadrant based on the label combination which BEST fits it. You can immediately see how the time management matrix forces you to take stock, not just of all the things you have to do but also how you view them, regarding relevance and demand on your time.

Quadrant One: Important and Urgent

This segment of the Eisenhower Matrix holds the tasks you have placed the highest priority on. These jobs are the ones who cannot be put off for later and must be attended to immediately, Items here could include a fast-approaching deadline for a client or your boss. Others may be:

  • A medical emergency
  • A family crisis
  • Last-minute preparations for an event

These responsibilities tend to be the ones you cannot delegate to anyone else and must attend to yourself. Even if you can delegate them, you will have to oversee the details of their completion personally.

In an ideal world, where you are constantly up-to-date with your tasks, and there are never any emergencies, Quadrant One would be empty! We all know, however, that is never the case. So, practically, Quadrant One items should not be more than a handful. Keeping Quadrant One at a minimum is done by working steadily on the things in Quadrant Two. In so doing, it will be less stressful for you if you have to adjust the matrix and switch things around because something comes up which takes precedence over everything else.

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Also, too many items in the first segment of your time management matrix could be an indication that you have too much on your plate or you have bitten off more than you can chew. Take a moment to review each of your Quadrant One entries objectively. It is possible that some of them should be in either Quadrant Two or Quadrant Three - not quite so important or urgent as you originally thought.

If your Quadrant One is always overflowing, then you may need to drop some of your responsibilities to ensure your health and sanity are not eroded by the mountain of urgent and important things you have to do.

Quadrant Two: Important But Not Urgent

Here you will place the items which are significant in the medium and long-term - things you may choose to tackle just a little bit at a time. Quadrant Two proves to be very helpful when it comes to strategizing or planning for the future. These jobs deserve a fair share of your attention (that is, after all, why you are labeling them as important!) Their completion, however, is not a matter of great urgency. Ultimately, you are aiming for the bulk of your tasks to fall in Quadrant Two.

This segment of your time management matrix could be reserved for activities which contribute to your overall wellbeing - your physical, mental and emotional health. Things such as exercise, scheduling vacation time or spending quality time with family and friends. Other possible Quadrant Two items include:

  • Training courses
  • Professional development
  • Prepping for an event
  • Keeping abreast of the news
  • Time spent on planning

Where possible, delegating responsibilities and making use of teamwork are two very good ways to tackle Quadrant Two items. So, too, is making it a point to devote time to your Quadrant Two activities even though they are not of the utmost urgency. If you get into the habit of putting them off, then there is the very real risk of these items being transferred to your Quadrant One and stressing you out.

A quick example is always delaying professional development until you suddenly realize that your job is now on the line because you failed to upgrade your qualifications and keep up-to-date with developments in your area of expertise. Crash courses, quick fixes and having to convince your boss that you do, in fact, view professional development as important and will strive for improvement, will only pile on the stress.

Quadrant Three: Urgent But Not Important

Items in Quadrant Three are usually seen as distractions or interruptions which get in the way of you completing the jobs in Quadrants One and Two. They pop up with a sense of urgency, like the ringing of your phone, but they are not necessarily important. Quadrant Three entries will include:

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  • Some meetings
  • Some phone calls
  • Some Emails

Filling in Quadrant Three tends to be tricky and boils down to your understanding of what is important versus what is urgent.

A good example of what goes here is that third 3-hour department meeting for the month where you know the same issues as before will get rehashed. Once it's over, everyone will head back to business as usual. You don't see the meeting as important but your boss sure does and so your being there is a matter of urgency - you cannot put it off.

When it comes to the items in Quadrant Three, go with delegating as much of them as you can. You may still have to check up on the progress of any item you have delegated, to ensure that it's done efficiently and effectively. Otherwise, it could fall back to you with even greater urgency than it originally called for.

Furthermore, the responsibilities you delegate do not have to be to an actual person. For instance, you can rely on voice mail to take some of your phone calls while you are tending to the important issues of Quadrant One and Two. Later, when you are not so occupied, you can go through the messages to find out what they were about and deal with each as required, perhaps by returning the call.

Quadrant Four: Not Urgent and Not Important

If you diligently fill out the first three quadrants of your Eisenhower Matrix, then you may be pleasantly surprised by the number of things you end up relegating to Quadrant Four! These items are generally bad, unproductive habits which are neither important nor urgent. They tend to clutter your day and do nothing more than get in the way of you accomplishing tasks which are either important, urgent or both.

Things like constantly checking in on your social media accounts and:

  • Watching television for hours-on-end
  • Aimlessly surfing the web
  • Telephone conversations which center around gossiping

These time-wasters often come in the guise of being urgent - a message alert on your phone, for instance, but they are never important. Placing them in Quadrant Four of your time management matrix is the first step in ridding yourself of them. Your time can be much better spent on things in the other three quadrants - things you have deemed to have some measure of importance or urgency.

Of course, finding time to relax and unwind is always important and can become urgent, at times. Routinely pursuing trivial and unproductive pursuits, however, is the type of thing you should try to eliminate from your daily activities.

Using Your Time Management Matrix Effectively

Do it regularly

There is no strict rule as to how often you should write a time management matrix. That will depend on your circumstances, workload and the nature of the tasks you have to complete. Some persons find that reviewing and updating the matrix on a weekly basis is practical for them. Others prefer working on it daily, deleting and adding tasks as is necessary. Whichever interval you choose, try setting aside a specific time to work on your matrix as this will help to ensure that it gets done.

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Write It Down

When it comes to planning, it is always a good habit to write things down, whether with pen and paper or on your PC, tablet or phone. The very act of writing, coupled with the visual matrix you create, both help to develop your thought processes as you sort through the tasks at hand. It is a good idea to keep your time management matrix in a location where you will see it often - the home screen on your computer or a strategically placed paper hardcopy, work well.

The time management matrix is meant to do more than assist you with completing your tasks. It is also a way for you to step back and put some perspective into the way you look at all the things you want to get done. Physically writing down the matrix helps you to do that.

Add Details

Think of the details you add to your matrix as the first step in tackling each of your tasks - a plan of attack, of sorts. As you place each task in the Eisenhower Matrix, you can clarify your statements, add notes, break up a large job into smaller ones, and then add separate achievement times for those.

Be Flexible

Your time management matrix is not cast in stone. Unexpected events which are perhaps important or urgent can pop up at any time and throw your carefully laid plans off schedule. You may find that items change place, hopping from one quadrant to the next.

For example, you may have placed a job with a far-off deadline in Quadrant Two (Important but Not Urgent). If circumstances lead to you not being able to attend it at all or as much as you would have liked, then you might find that the deadline is suddenly looming over your head with quite a bit of the job still incomplete. That means you'll have to bump that particular job to Quadrant One (Important and Urgent) to ensure that its deadline is met.

6 Benefits of Using the Time Management Matrix

  1. You Learn To Prioritize: The ability to recognize those things which are important and distinguish them from the inconsequential distractions around you is an invaluable skill. As you work with the time management matrix, you will find that prioritizing becomes more intuitive. That is, you can quickly assess the tasks at hand regarding their relevance and urgency, and then tailor your approach to suit them.
  2. You Become More Organized: The Eisenhower Matrix adds order to how you tackle your responsibilities. So, instead of working haphazardly you know which jobs should be done first and which you can spread out over a period.
  3. You Learn To Let Go: It's not just the distractions that you learn to let go of as you rely on your time management matrix to guide you in accomplishing your tasks. You also learn to realize when you cannot take on any more responsibilities and when it's time to pass some of your tasks onto others.
  4. You Learn Self-Discipline: Self-discipline is consciously taking control of your behavior. It involves being more focused on positive actions as you give up negative ones. This trait grows naturally out of the first three benefits of the matrix: prioritizing, organizing and avoiding distractions.
  5. You Accomplish More: By being more organized and avoiding timewasting activities, you spend more of your time on what matters, working through your To-Do list at a much faster rate. Those 16 hours in your day suddenly don't seem quite so short!
  6. You Are Less Stressed: Quite often, much of the stress we experience comes from having too much to do at once and feeling like we cannot devote enough time to each activity. With the time management matrix, you begin staying on track with your tasks and meeting deadlines, thus eliminating a great deal of your stress.

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Some persons can diligently implement a time management worksheet, like the matrix, all on their own. For others, however, a little advice and guidance from a trained professional is the perfect catalyst to get them started. Are you having issues with chronic procrastination, being persistently ill-organized or continually distracted by the "Not Important and Not Urgent" things in life? The earlier you reach out for assistance, the sooner you can start seeing the difference the time management matrix can make for you.


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