How the Eisenhower Matrix Allows You to Focus on What’s Important, and Ignore What’s Not

Running a business is hard work. There is no shortage of things to be done. Many small business owners spend a large portion of their day putting out fires, big or small tasks that seem to come out of nowhere, devouring large parts of the day.

Of course, it’s important to manage the normal day-to-day affairs of running a business. Ensuring that deadlines are met or an unhappy customer is assuaged is vital to the success of your business.

But if the majority of your day is spent running from emergency to emergency, never having the time to work on what will have the biggest impact on your bottom line, you are likely limiting how successful you and your business will be. Working on whatever comes up can have a detrimental effect on the long-term viability of your business. With distractions coming from all directions, it is difficult to stay focused on what is going to help drive your business forward.

There are countless systems out there to help small business owners manage their time. One of these, The Eisenhower Matrix, has become one of the most trusted methods to manage one’s time. It remains one of the most popular ways for managers and business leaders to manage their time. It helps you identify what projects and tasks are, and are not, important so that you can spend your time in the most efficient way possible.

What is The Eisenhower Matrix?

The Eisenhower Matrix gets its name from a 1954 speech by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in which he said “I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”

The problem of spending too much time on what is not important, at the expense of what is, lies at the heart of The Eisenhower Matrix.

To effectively use the system, you take all the projects and tasks you think you should be working on and place them into one of four boxes, i.e. the Eisenhower Matrix. All of these items will fall into one of these four boxes:

  • Important/Urgent

  • Important/Not Urgent

  • Unimportant/Urgent

  • Unimportant/Not Urgent

Important/Urgent – These are where many small businesses spend a lot of their time. These can be important tasks, but because they are urgent you will likely be rushing to finish and can miss important details. One of the goals of the system is to limit how much time is spent working with urgent items. The goal is not to avoid doing these tasks, rather is to manage them with the time they deserve, not as an emergency.

Important/Not Urgent – In part because of the time spent on the urgent issues, items in this category tend to suffer. Things like exercise or long-term strategic planning, which will have the biggest impact over the long-term, often fall by the wayside. One of the primary goals of organizing your tasks into what is and isn’t important is to allow you to more clearly see what truly affects your business and life, and whether or not they are being neglected.

Unimportant/Urgent – Eisenhower Method enthusiasts recommend that you do your best to delegate these tasks. If you have an urgent task that won’t have much of an impact on your business or life, does it really need to get done? Especially if the task is usurping time from important work that will have an impact, urgent but ultimately unimportant tasks should be eliminated, delegated, or otherwise dealt with quickly so that you can focus on what’s important.

Unimportant/Not Urgent – These are items that don’t positively affect your business and life. In general, you should treat these as distractions and do your best to keep them out of your life. That is not to say you can’t spend any time on things that don’t improve your business. Hobbies or leisure activities can be an important part of a balanced and full-filled life. They don’t belong in the unimportant box.

Using The Eisenhower Matrix

The goal is to minimize the amount of time you spend working on items in the urgent/important box and maximize the time in the important box. While you may need to complete items that are important and urgent, you need to figure out ways to stop these items from continually showing up as emergencies.

Of course, you live in the real world, and you can’t always control what happens in your day. If you find you are continually being forced to work on urgent issues, you might make an item in the important box to analyze and understand why these important issues keep popping up. Maybe an employee hasn’t been trained with a particular issue and you need to keep fixing their work. Or clear expectations aren’t being properly communicated to your clients, requiring time-consuming back and forth communications.

Whatever the ultimate cause, to move your business forward you need to make sure that you are spending as much time as possible working on what actually will make a meaningful positive difference in your business and life.

By clearly auditing the time you spend on individual tasks and honestly evaluating their impact on your business, you are in a much better position to make the best use of your limited time.