The time management matrix: Making the best use of your time

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated April 30, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

You get 24 hours each day, and the experts say that you should spend approximately eight of them sleeping. That leaves 16 full hours to get everything accomplished each day. If it seems like you never have enough time to accomplish what you need to, it may have to do with how you’re managing your time. 

One tried and tested, yet simple strategy you can employ is the time management matrix. It may help you prioritize your responsibilities so that you can get through all of them with as little stress as possible.

Strengthening your mental health can improve your time management

What is the time management matrix?

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

Many people 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 take 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 typically essential to you achieving a goal. You probably view them as being very significant, whether personally or to someone you care about.
  • Urgent: These items often need to be done immediately, usually because delaying them will have instant repercussions on other items or areas of your life.

You can complete the matrix by adding each of your tasks to a quadrant based on the label combination which fits it most. You might see how the time management matrix forces you to take stock, not just of all the things you must do but also of 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 tasks typically cannot be put off for later and must be attended to immediately. Items here could include:

  • A medical emergency
  • A fast-approaching deadline
  • 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 often 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. However, that is hardly the case. Still, it may be best to limit Quadrant One items to no more than a handful. You may find that you can keep Quadrant One at a minimum by working steadily on the items in Quadrant Two. In so doing, it may 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.

Too many items in the first segment of your time management matrix could be an indication that you have too much on your plate. You might take a moment to review each of your Quadrant One entries objectively. It may be possible that some of them should be in either Quadrant Two or Quadrant Three—not quite as important or urgent as you originally thought.

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

Quadrant two: Important but not urgent

Here you can place the items that are significant in the medium and long term—things you may choose to tackle just a little bit at a time. Quadrant Two can be helpful when it comes to strategizing or planning for the future. These tasks deserve your attention, but their completion is typically not a matter of great urgency. Ultimately, you might aim to have the bulk of your tasks fall in Quadrant Two.

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

  • Attending training courses
  • Engaging in professional development
  • Prepping for an event

Where possible, delegating responsibilities and making use of teamwork may be two effective ways to approach Quadrant Two items. Even though they are not of the utmost urgency, they still need to be done. If you get into the habit of putting them off, then there is a risk of these items being transferred to your Quadrant One and stressing you out.

A quick example might be delaying professional development until you suddenly realize that your job is now on the line because you didn’t upgrade your qualifications and remain up-to-date with developments in your area of expertise. Crash courses and quick fixes may only pile on the stress.

Quadrant three: Urgent but not important

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

  • Meetings
  • Phone calls
  • Emails
  • Most phone notifications

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

An example of what could go here is that third two-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 does, and so being there is a matter of urgency. You cannot put it off.

When it comes to the items in Quadrant Three, you might try to delegate as many 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 go to an actual person. For instance, you might rely on voicemail to take some of your phone calls while you are tending to the important issues of Quadrants One and Two. Later, when you are not so occupied, you can go through the messages to find out what they were about and address each as required.

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 can be unhelpful, unproductive habits that are neither important nor urgent. They tend to clutter your day and do nothing more than get in the way of you accomplishing tasks that are either important, urgent, or both.

The following are some activities that you might place in Quadrant Four:

  • Watching television for hours-on-end
  • Checking social media
  • Aimlessly surfing the web
  • Engaging in text conversations that center on gossip

These time-wasters often come in the guise of being urgent, such as a message alert on your phone, but they tend not to be important. Placing them in Quadrant Four of your time management matrix may help limit your time spent on them or even eliminate them. 

While finding time to relax and unwind can be important and may become urgent at times, routinely pursuing trivial and unproductive pursuits can siphon time away from your efforts to reach your goals. 

Using your time management matrix effectively

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

Strengthening your mental health can improve your time management

Write it down

When it comes to planning, it may be helpful to write your goals 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, may help to develop your thought processes as you sort through the tasks at hand. It may also be beneficial to keep your time management matrix in a location where you will see it often, such as the home screen on your computer or a strategically placed paper hard copy.

A time management matrix can do more than assist you with completing your tasks. It can also serve as a way for you to step back and put some perspective into the way you look at all the goals you want to accomplish. Physically writing down the matrix may help you to do that.

Add details

As you approach your matrix, you might think of the details involved in each of your tasks. As you place each task in the Eisenhower Matrix, you can clarify your statements, add notes, break up a large task into smaller ones, and then add separate achievement times for those.

Be flexible

Your time management matrix doesn’t necessarily have to be set in stone. Unexpected events that are perhaps important or urgent can pop up at any time and throw your plans off schedule. You may find that items need to be moved from one quadrant to another.

For example, you may have placed a task with a far-off deadline in Quadrant Two (important but not urgent). If circumstances lead to you not being able to devote much time to it, then you might find that the deadline is suddenly looming over your head with quite a bit of the task still incomplete. That means you'll likely have to bump that particular job to Quadrant One (important and urgent) to meet the deadline.

Getting help with your time management matrix

Some people can diligently implement a time management matrix all on their own. For others, however, advice and guidance from a trained counselor may be a catalyst that helps get them started. If you’re having problems with chronic procrastination, poor organization, or distractions by the "not important and not urgent" things in life, you may benefit from speaking with a counselor. 

If your busy schedule makes it difficult to participate in traditional in-office counseling, you may benefit from online counseling. With online counseling, can connect you with a therapist who has experience helping people with time management and procrastination. 

Since BetterHelp operates entirely online, you won’t need to worry about interrupting your busy lifestyle for sessions and can instead schedule them according to your availability. In addition to communicating with a therapist via audio, live chat, or video calls, you can contact your therapist at any time in between sessions through in-app messaging, and they’ll respond as soon as they can.

People experiencing difficulty with time management and procrastination may benefit from online counseling interventions. In one study, researchers found that an internet-based cognitive behavioral therapy intervention allowed many participants to gain momentum on many tasks and assignments that they had deferred. 

Takeaway

A time management matrix may help you prioritize the tasks that are most pressing and allow you to devote more energy to what matters most. It can take time to learn how to avoid procrastination and manage your time well. If you’re experiencing difficulty with either of these obstacles in your personal or professional life, a licensed online therapist may be able to help you overcome them. 

While therapy might feel like another task is being added to your plate, it may ultimately be what helps you experience greater productivity and efficiency in your everyday life. Take the first step toward better time management and reach out to BetterHelp today.

Construct a healthy time management routine
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