How to Use the Eisenhower Prioritization Matrix to Focus on What's Important
Productive product managers know how to prioritize the things that create the biggest impact. Learn how with the Eisenhower Prioritization Matrix.
Do you ever feel like you worked frantically all day but didn’t really accomplish anything? Have you ever had big plans for the day, but abandoned your schedule by 10 AM?
That’s the life for many product managers. You spend all day putting out fires that there’s little time for meaningful work.
The key to productivity is rarely to work harder or work more hours. Productive people know how to prioritize the things that create the biggest impact.
One of the best prioritizers from history is Dwight Eisenhower, 34th president of the United States.
Before Eisenhower was president, he was a general and supreme commander of the United States Army during World War II. He was known for being absurdly productive and focused at work while also investing a lot of his time into his hobbies - reading, painting, golf, and poker.
It doesn’t ask you to work absurd hours or work at an unhealthy pace. Instead, it helps you target the tasks that add the most value to your work.
Free download: 8 Tips for Using the Eisenhower Prioritization Matrix
The Eisenhower Prioritization Matrix Explained
Eisenhower once said, “What is important is seldom urgent, and what is urgent is seldom important.” This is often referred to as the Eisenhower Principle.
The Eisenhower Prioritization Matrix (sometimes called the Urgent-Important Matrix) is a framework for organizing tasks in regards to their importance and urgency. It’s a simple tool to help you focus on the things that have the greatest impact on your life and your job.
As a product manager, you surely recognize that you’ll never clear your to-do list. There will always be something to do, so it’s smart to focus on the things that create impact.
The Matrix consists of four quadrants:
- Urgent and important. Do these tasks immediately.
- Important, but not urgent. Schedule these tasks for later.
- Urgent, but not important. Delegate these tasks to someone else.
- Neither urgent or important. Eliminate these tasks.
Using the matrix is easy. You simply filter your tasks into each quadrant.
Complete tasks in the urgent and important quadrant right away. Schedule tasks that are in the important but not urgent quadrant for another time. Delegate tasks that fall into the urgent but not important quadrant. And finally, eliminate any tasks that fall into the not urgent and not important quadrant.
You will be surprised at how many tasks fall into those last two quadrants. You probably have a number of tasks on your to-do list right now that can be eliminated or delegated to somebody else. Simply identifying these tasks will make you feel more productive because it will remove a lot of work from your plate.
The challenge to using the Matrix, however, is filtering your tasks into the right quadrants. You won’t gain the benefits of the Matrix if you categorize your tasks improperly.
Let's go over the quadrants to give you an idea of the types of tasks that should go into each.
Quadrant 1: Urgent and Important
Tasks you put in this box are things with looming deadlines that can't possibly be missed or delayed without causing irreversible harm to the product, your team, or your job. You’ll experience negative consequences if you fail to complete them quickly.
They also require your specific skillet or experience. You can’t delegate these tasks to anyone else. For instance, your stakeholders want updates from you, not someone on your team.
Ideally, very few tasks should fall into this category. If things are important, they should never get to the point of urgency. The exception, of course, is actual emergencies you couldn’t foresee.
Quadrant 2: Important, but Not Urgent
Tasks in this category are usually things that don’t directly impact your goals but are still part of your job. They deserve your attention, but they don’t need to be handled right away, so they should be scheduled for a later time.
For example, filling out performance reviews for the people on your team is an important task. It’s a key way to document their performance and help them grow. Even small startups need to assess the competence and performance of their employees.
But this kind of task is rarely important. It could happen now, next month, or three months from now without much impact on the organization.
Ideally, a majority of your tasks should fall into this box. It’s best to schedule your work so you’re always ahead of problems, rather than reacting to the latest emergency. Once you approach the deadline and haven’t completed the task; however, tasks from this quadrant move into quadrant one.
Quadrant 3: Urgent, but Not Important
Tasks in this category are things you typically label as “interruptions.” They need to be done right now, which makes them feel important even though they don’t add any value to your work. It feels good to cross them off, but they don’t accomplish anything significant.
In many cases, however, they can’t be ignored, so you’ll want to delegate them to other people. Here are three examples:
- Enlist Someone Else
A developer is working with unfamiliar technology. He comes to you with some questions. answering his questions is an urgent ask because he needs to get back to work, but it's not an important task for you to handle.
In this instance, the best way to be productive is to have the developer speak with someone else who understands the technology.
- Just Say No
Every so often someone from your organization will ask you for help. You want to be a team player, so you are tempted to give them some of your time. But “no” is a perfectly valid response to a request for help. You don’t have to drop what you’re doing to help someone else (though you should be polite about it, of course).
When you say “no,” you’re actually just delegating back to the person who was trying to delegate to you. Just because it’s important for someone else doesn’t mean it’s important for you.
- Let Software Do It
Delegating doesn’t just mean handing tasks to people. You can also delegate to software. In many cases, it’s often cheaper and faster to automate a task.
Furthermore, you don’t have to delegate the entire task. You can delegate part of it so that the remainder of the task fits into another quadrant of the Eisenhower Prioritization Matrix.
Your stakeholder reports, for example, require a lot of tedious pulling of data and formatting reports. We made Underway to automate all of the little time-consuming tasks. All that’s left is to add your insight.
Quadrant 4: Not Important and Not Urgent
This is where you place time-wasting activities that don’t create much impact. They don’t help you build a better product or help your team grow. In fact, they usually distract you from more valuable tasks.
Activities like social media, watching TV, and browsing deals on Amazon fall into this group. These activities are fine on their own, but they shouldn’t be prioritized during work hours.
That doesn’t mean non-work activities are the only tasks that go into this box. There are plenty of activities that seem like work but should be eliminated.
For instance, let's say you outlined a new product feature on a whiteboard for your team. Everyone on the team understands the writing and images on the board, but you don’t like that it’s a little sloppy. Recreating your outline so it looks “professional” seems like good work, but it doesn’t make your product or team any better than the sloppy outline, so it’s a task to eliminate.
Ready to use the Eisenhower Prioritization Matrix? Here are some tips for success.
Prioritize to Create Value
As you can see, this prioritization framework is about what you do, not how you do it. Eisenhower didn’t work unreasonable hours (in fact, he spent a lot of time on personal and leisure activities). He didn’t work a frenetic pace. Instead, he simply put his effort into tasks that created the most value. If you use his framework, you’ll create a big impact on your product team and the product itself.