Ways to improve time management: the urgent or important matrix

How do you decide what to do with your day?

  • Do you make a list and start at the top?
  • Do you stumble from one crisis to the next and feel that you are always fighting fires?
  • Do you just sit around staring at the piles of paperwork building up on your desk?
  • Or do you need some ways to improve your time managment?

Everyone has the same 24 hours in a day, 7 days a week and 52 weeks in a year. So how do some people manage to get so much more done than others? Is it because they are Superman and Supergirl masquerading as ordinary people? Or are they employing strategies that are superior to that of the average person?

There are many ways to improve your time management and there are many scheduling and project plannnig tools on the market today that claim to help you manage your time better and organise your tasks, emails, and burgeoning “to do” list, so that it is more manageable and causes less stress. These can be expensive and need specialist training to use them properly.

But one of the best and simplest ways that I have found to sort the wheat from the chaff when it comes to my own daily tasks, is something that has been around since the 1950s – Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “urgent or important matrix“.

In a nutshell, it is a simple, easy-to-understand-and-implement tool, that allows the user to prioritise their most urgent and important tasks, ensuring that they are done first.

But more than that, ‘highly effective people’ are using it to make sure that their time is spent in the most efficient and effective way possible, as described in Stephen Covey’s book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”.

The origin of the matrix

General Eisenhower
General Eisenhower

There is some confusion about who invented the urgent or important matrix but it was first described by America’s 34th President, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was President of the United States from 1953 to 1961. Prior to his move into politics, Eisenhower had been the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces during the Second World War and later moved on to become the first Supreme Commander of the newly-formed, NATO.

With such prestigious and responsible roles, Eisenhower needed a way to distinguish between, and prioritize the different tasks that faced him each morning,

His observation of “What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important” led him to invent the matrix as a way of analysing the most important and the most urgent things on his agenda and to prioritize his time accordingly.

In 1989, Stephen Covey pioneered the start of the self-help era for business with his book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”. It made his fortune and became popular the world over.

Now many of the 7 habits have possibly moved into what we would today call more common sense items – things such as synergize (think teamwork) and being proactive, but one of the ideas he championed was Eisenhower’s matrix, which he called the “time management matrix“, expanding on its usefulness for business people.

By categorising each task, into one of the 4 quadrants, you can see which ones to do first, and which ones to postpone until later.


The Urgent Vs Important or Time Management Matrix

In its original form, the tool is a 2×2 matrix resulting in 4 quadrants which plot tasks that are urgent or not urgent, against whether they are important or not important.

  • Important tasks are the ones that lead to the achievement of your plans and goals.
  • Urgent tasks need your immediate attention and are often linked more to achieving other people’s goals rather than your own but ignoring these or not dealing with them lead to missed deadlines and immediate consequences which can cause further crises.

Each quadrant is numbered from left to right, top to bottom as shown below.

By Rory Bowman – Public Domain,

The examples given above give you an idea of nature of the tasks that would end up in each quadrant, but perhaps an even simpler version would simply be:

Quadrant 1: Urgent and important

Avoid too much time fire-fighting
  • Needs immediate attention and action.
  • These are crises that need to be dealt with to prevent immediate consequences which have an impact on your output or productivity.
  • Examples of this type of activity include:
    • Crises of all kinds
    • Emergencies
    • Meetings
    • Urgent deadlines
    • Staff sickness
    • Metaphorical or real ‘fire-fighting’.

How to manage these tasks

Deal with these tasks immediately as they come up, trying to be calm and considered in your approach.

We all have crises to deal with from time to time that may or may not be of our own making. However, it is best to try to use the tasks in quadrant 2 to ensure that urgent and important things do not occur in your business on a regular basis.

If they do, then there is something wrong with structure, scheduling or performance that needs closer examination. For example, if you properly schedule your time and resources on a project so that deadlines are achieved calmly and on time, it will negate the need to ‘burn the midnight oil’ on a regular basis.

Other strategies here include politely saying ‘no’, or scheduling (and sticking to) a convenient time in your day to answer queries from colleagues so that you keep interruptions to a minimum.


Quadrant 2: Important but not urgent

  • According to Stephen Covey, this is the quadrant that needs your concentrated planning and most attention, since it will lead to the achievement of your goals in the longer term.
  • Tasks in this quadrant are important to your future success but do not need your immediate attention.
  • Examples of these tasks include:
    • Goal setting
    • Planning
    • Preparation for future tasks
    • Setting priorites
    • Building relationships
    • Training
    • Self-development and training.

How to manage these tasks

This is where you should spend most of your working day – planning and implementing things that will move you towards your end goals. The problem that many people face with this however, is that because these tasks are not urgent, they often find their way to the bottom of the pile through procrastination.

People often elevate less important tasks, distractions and interruptions above their quadrant 2 tasks and then wonder why they feel they have not achieved anything in their working day.

Readdressing the balance is key to getting your time managment back on track.


Quadrant 3: Urgent but not important

  • These items are usually distractions from other people but which need your urgent attention – or at least, they think need your urgent attention.
  • Examples include phone calls, problems from colleagues and other tasks which do not ultimately add to your productivity and the achievement of your goals, but are things which other people often need you to make a decision on before they can continue.
  • These tasks should be eliminated if possible or minimised by delegation.
  • Examples of these tasks include:
    • Unnecessary meetings
    • Interruptions from others when they could make a decision themselves
    • Unimportant phone calls, emails or texts
    • Other people’s crises.

How to manage these tasks

Try to plan so that these interruptions are minimised. This could mean better training of co-workers to empower them to take more responsibility, which will free up your time for more important, quadrant 2 tasks.

Often, tasks which appear in this quadrant appeal to your ego rather than affecting your overall productivity. Do you really need to sign off on everything that happens in your office for example, or is there a better option or someone else to do it?

As an entrepreneur, one of the goals you should have is to get to a place where the day-to-day running of your business is not so reliant on your own participation for it to function. After all, isn’t that one of the reasons most people set up their own business in the first place – so they can delegate more mundane tasks and free up their own time?


Quadrant 4: Neither important or urgent

Too many distractions lead to unproductive work
  • These tasks are really of little value to your business and you need to ideally get rid of these completely.
  • They waste your time and render what is done, as almost valueless.
  • Things such as surfing the internet with no purpose might be an interesting distraction to your real “To Do” list, but they add nothing to your overall productivity and should be done in your spare time or eliminated altogether.
  • Examples include:
    • Watching TV
    • Mindless surfing the web
    • Irrelevant mail, email or texting
    • “Pot-watching” – i.e. constantly checking things every few minutes
    • Things you do to ‘escape’ work
    • Time wasters be it activities, conversations or other people.

How to manage these tasks

Plan to do these tasks into your own spare time rather than your business or work day. Everyone needs some down-time for the sake of a healthy work-life balance, but these tasks do not really have any place in the working day if you want to achieve your goals.


How to Use the Matrix to Improve your Time Management

The matrix is a great tool, but like any other great tool, if it sits in your tool box all the time, it becomes useless. You have to get it out and use it in order for it to be effective for you.

You can use the template on a daily or a weekly basis depending on your job and how many tasks you usually have to schedule into your time.

1. Analyse Your Current Time Management

  1. Create or download a blank version of the matrix by clicking the link: Eisenhower Covey Time Management Matrix
  2. Make 7 or 5 copies – one for each day of the week you intend to study
  3. Record each task into the appropriate box along with the time you spent on the activity
  4. At the end of the week, add up and analyse how much time you spent in each quadrant
  5. Look at the table below to see where you need to make adjustments.

Experience has shown that most people spend most of their time in quadrants 1 and 3, doing urgent things. Most people who are ineffective in their time management, also avoid most of the tasks in quadrant 2 – they procrastinate, and leave things until they move from non-urgent to urgent and suddenly appear in quadrant 1.

As a result of this, they constantly feel stressed and as if they never have enough time, when in reality is it their time management that is to blame.

If you recognise yourself here, then use the matrix to reset your time management along the following guidelines.

2. Make Adjustments to Become More Productive

  1. Create or download a blank version of the matrix by clicking the link: Eisenhower Covey Time Management Matrix
  2. At the start of each week or day, go through each task on your “to do” list and ask yourself honestly if it is urgent or important – do be honest here. Keep in mind the outcomes you have for your business not just things you enjoy doing
  3. Write each task into the appropriate quadrant on your desk.
  4. When you have created your matrix, do the following:
    1. Complete all the tasks in quadrant 1 first, since these are both urgent and important
    2. Delegate as much from quadrant 3 as you can so that these no longer fall under your remit
    3. Concentrate the majority of your time on quadrant 2 tasks since these will bring the greatest reward
    4. Ignore the tasks in quadrant 4 – do them in your spare time.

By doing this, you will tackle the things that really matter, eventually reducing the number of tasks in quadrants 1 and 3 to a minimum. “Prevention is better than a cure” so they say.

You will also become more productive, reduce your stress and free-up your time for more pleasurable activities.

So I urge you today to take a fresh look at your own time management and set yourself up for future success.

Please leave a comment of check out more related posts below.

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10 comments

  1. This article is stuffed full of invaluable information for managing life really. I found this quote thought provoking: “What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important”. I can use this every single day in my life as a father of 2 young boys. It just makes you think about what we prioritize in our society versus what is truly important. Cool article!

    1. Hi Steve. Thanks for your comment and I’m so pleased you found the article useful and inspiring. As the mum of two girls, I totally know where you are coming from on the important and urgent side too. I hope you can use the tools to help with your time management for you and your family.

  2. So I reeaally needed this! lol. I am currently trying to juggle being home with two young kids and also being an online entrepreneur like yourself and i must admit that management get the best of me sometimes.

    I love the “urgent or important matrix“. The fact that it allows me to prioritize my most urgent and important tasks is awesome and I plan to try it today. I have a feeling quadrant 4 items may be waiting a while though. Do you have any more advice on making sure we eventually get to quadrant four if we don’t have loads of spare time?

    Also thanks for the free matrix!

    1. Hi Kayla. Many thanks for reading the post and I’m so glad you found it useful for you. I am a single mother of 2 girls so I totally understand the problems of trying to organise time and children as well. To answer your question about quadrant 4, I think I it is important to keep a good work-life balance so you need to have some down time. That might mean that you actually schedule it into your day, but make sure that you do the other ones in the order suggested first. Hopefully, if you get things right and are focusing more on quadrant 2, quadrants 1 and 3 will become less, so you will find that you do have more spare time to enjoy. Glad you liked the downloadable file too. Have a great day and all the best with your business. Gail

  3. I haven’t heard of this quadrant, but I am for sure going to use it from now on. I am definitely one of those types that procrastinate and waste time with unnecessary tasks, surfing the web, etc. That is a habit I need to change – and pronto! This quadrant looks like the perfect place to get me started. Thank you!!

    1. Hi Christina – you and me both! 🙂 I think that this matrix is an excellent tool and its just so simple to use so I really hope that you find that too. I find that the majority of people (including me) have struggled with time management at some point in the past – think of all those late nights trying to get your homework done at the last minute when you’ve really had weeks to do it! LOL I have learned to be more organised in recent years because of my children. Before them, I had much more time, (or thought I did) but since they have come into my life, there are so many more things competing for my attention. Using the matrix has really helped me get the most out of the time I’ve got. It’s also helped me point out to my children that there are times I need to schedule in work, and times I can schedule in more fun things, and they get that. Hope you have an amazing day and thanks again for reading. Gail

  4. Hi Gail,
    This was a very interesting post. I’ve never looked at time management this way. It looks very effective and I’m going to try it out. Anything that helps me be more productive is an asset. Of course, living with 2 grandchildren, quadrant 1 can get pretty busy, lol. But I love it!
    Cheers,
    Suzanne

    1. LOL – I’m sure that quadrant 1 is definitely full for you but I hope the fires your fighting are not real ones! Thanks for your post Suzanne and I hope that you do find it useful in whatever area of your life you need to use it on.
      I find that most of my day is spent in quadrant 3 with my 2 girls – especially at bedtime – when the interruptions and distractions are at their highest! I’ll have to go back to my strategy of a a 20 mile hike each day to wear them out!! 🙂

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