The Eisenhower Decision Matrix
Management activities focus on the means of meeting project objectives, such as having effective processes, planning, coordinating, measuring, and monitoring work, among others.  Prioritizing work tasks in a project, program, or portfolio is crucial in order to manage and coordinate time and resources.
Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th President of the United States, planted the seeds behind the world-famous Eisenhower principle, describing how to prioritize work tasks by urgency and importance. The principle is described in an Urgent-Important Matrix, also known as the Eisenhower Decision Matrix. Each quadrant guides decisions and acts of prioritization by comparing tasks to their value and alignment with goals. Therefore, establishing goals before achieving prioritization is paramount in order to use the Eisenhower Matrix effectively. The goal of this prioritization is to avoid crisis situations by planning for the future, making tasks more manageable, helping delegate more, and avoiding wasting time on inconsequential tasks.
The prioritization tool is relevant to the PEOPLE section of Project, Program, and Portfolio management. Specifically focusing on self-management and focus for managers. The manager's capability to manage their work, motivation, focus, etc is fundamental for the outcome of the overall project, program, or portfolio. Self-management, also known as self-regulation, is the ability to control and redirect disruptive feelings and impulses. It is the ability to think before acting, suspending snap judgments, and impulsive decisions.
The Eisenhower matrix supports managers in optimizing their time and energy based on importance and urgency. Supported by the H. Bratterud et al. article on Revitalizing the Eisenhower Matrix, this article discusses the limitations of the two-dimensional matrix.
The History and the theory of the Eisenhower Decision Matrix
Dwight D. Eisenhower was the 34th President of the United States from 1953 until 1961. Before becoming President, Eisenhower served as a general in the United States Army, as the Allied Forces Supreme Commander during World War II, and later became NATO’s first supreme commander. Through his different roles, he had to make tough decisions continuously about which of the many tasks he should focus on each day. And he did it all with panache — Eisenhower was Gallup’s most admired man of the year no less than twelve times.
In 1953, Eisenhower became the first Republican in over three decades to win the White House when he succeeded Harry Truman as president. Eisenhower was a master organizer, keeping a tight rein on his time and tasks. In his lifetime, first as an American soldier and then as an elected leader of the US, Eisenhower needed to make many decisions often under extreme pressure.
“Who can define for us with accuracy the difference between the long and short term! Especially whenever our affairs seem to be in crisis, we are almost compelled to give our first attention to the urgent present rather than to the important future.”
– Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1961 address to the Century Association
How was Eisenhower able to rack up so many accomplishments that would have such a lasting impact on his country and the world? He understood the fundamental difference between the Urgent and the Important. In a 1954 speech, Eisenhower quoted an unnamed university president who said, “I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1954
Eisenhower declared this, at the beginning of his presidential mandate, facing the USA's economic and political intern and foreign orientations, during a conference with his cabinet counselors. In other words, Eisenhower expressed that "What is important is seldom urgent, and what is urgent is seldom important." These were the words and a way of thinking that would later go on to be used by Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, to develop the now-popular tool for task management known as the Eisenhower Decision Matrix.
The Eisenhower Matrix, also known as the time management matrix, the Eisenhower Box, and the urgent-important matrix, is a simple tool for considering long-term outcomes. The matrix is a graphical diagram and tool to illustrate the delegation and distinguish between important and urgent tasks. The four quadrants cover important/urgent, important/non-urgent, nonimportant/urgent, and non-important/non-urgent; each guiding decisions and acts of prioritization by comparing tasks to their value and alignment with goals. Therefore, establishing goals before achieving prioritization is paramount in order to use the Eisenhower Matrix effectively. The matrix, as a method for productivity, has been studied and put to use for many decades  with the goal of avoiding crisis situations by planning for the future.
Urgency and Importance
Before diving into the matrix it is crucial to understand and distinguish between urgency and importance. As this is the core analysis that the tool provides, the way that tasks are defined determines the outcome.
Urgency refers to items that require immediate attention. Often urgency is a highly regarded factor in the prioritization of time management as the urgency dictates which tasks promptly require attention for one reason or the other. Urgent work requires attention right away and must complete within a specific time limit, most often a small duration. Important tasks become urgent in due course of time if delayed too much, not given proper attention, or carried out without real interest. Taking time to write performance reviews, avoiding difficult conversations, or preparing for a presentation, are all important tasks that can become urgent if not handled in due time. Steven Covey describes that urgent matters are the visible issues that pop up and demand your attention NOW. Often, urgent matters come with clear consequences for not completing these tasks. Urgent tasks are unavoidable, but spending too much time putting out fires also takes away from focusing on the greater goals and vision. Urgent matters are usually visible. They press on us; they insist on action. They’re often popular with others. They’re usually right in front of us. And often they are pleasant, easy, and fun to do. But so often they are unimportant! 
Importance refers to items that contribute to overall, long-term goals and vision. Important means “of great significance or value; likely to have a profound effect on success”. Importance is about the impact of accomplishing the task; bringing intrinsic benefit. As Steven Covey describes it, important matters are those that contribute to long-term goals and life values. These items require planning and thoughtful action. When focusing on important matters you manage your time, energy, and attention rather than mindlessly expanding these resources. What is important is subjective and depends on the project, program, or portfolio goal. Important tasks align with an overall mission and goals and have a large impact on its success. Important tasks require initiative and proactiveness. Strategic thinking, risk analysis, roadmap creation, brainstorming, communication, and making sound decisions all require dedicated time to do quality work.
1. Quadrant - do first, the urgent and important matters.
This quadrant consists of matters that require immediate action. The urgent and important matters typically have visible deadlines and consequences for stalling on taking action. These are therefore matters that should be prioritized. In other terms, matters placed in the first quadrant of the matrix deal with a form of crisis. It deals with significant results that require immediate attention. The first quadrant can consume many people. They are crisis managers, problem-minded people, and deadline-driven producers. As long as you focus on Quadrant I, it keeps getting bigger and bigger until it dominates you. It is therefore advantageous not to focus too much on this first quadrant in order to improve and emphasize the matters that tackle long-term goals.
2. Quadrant - schedule, the not urgent and important matters.
The second quadrant entails matters of low urgency and high importance. These are the matters that support long-term goals and require proactive work in order to gain a greater effect on the overall vision. It is easy for this quadrant to be disregarded as it is not urgent, but the impact of these matters tends to have a bigger impact if prioritized. While it’s not possible to completely avoid crisis, carefully planning work that aligns with long-term goals while taking a risk and other factors into account will involve less crisis creating a self-perpetuating cycle that will free up more time to do forward-looking work. Our natural tendency is to deal with the urgent while delaying important work. Spending more time in this quadrant will require exercising control as it will be the biggest driver in achieving significant results and creating value for the organization and its people. The second quadrant is the heart of effective personal management. It deals with all those things we know we need to do, but somehow seldom get around to doing, because they aren’t urgent. This is the spot to be focused not on problems (as with Q1) but on opportunities and growth. Focussing on this quadrant of the matrix means proactivity and prioritization of activities that grow skills and energy, and contribute to accomplishing meaningful goals. Lastly, by attending to Q2 consistently, the number of pressing problems that pop up in Q1 will decrease. By creating plans to complete projects and avoid possible problems.
3. Quadrant - delegate, the urgent but not important matters.
Urgent but Not Important tasks are best described as busywork. These matters are often based on expectations set by others and do not move you closer to your long-term goals. Steven Covey mentions that there are people who spend a great deal of time in the “urgent, but not important” third quadrant, thinking they’re in the first quadrant. They spend most of their time reacting to things that are urgent, assuming they are also important. But the reality is that the urgency of these matters is often based on the priorities and expectations of others. Given that Q3 tasks are urgent but typically related to someone else's priorities, it is suggested by Covey that these be delegated. To separate important from not important requires careful examination, understanding, and setting priorities personally or for the team. As a manager, matters in this quadrant are perfect candidates to entrust your team with more responsibilities and empower them to make independent decisions. Delegating work in this manner will not only free up time to do work that requires careful planning in the second quadrant but also establish trust with the team members creating a beneficial result all around.
4. Quadrant - delete or leave for later, the not urgent, nor important matters.
Last, and in this case the least, the not urgent and not important matters are time-wasting activities that should be ruthlessly cut out. These activities don’t contribute to progress on any goals but can end up taking over large chunks of time. These not important, not urgent tasks are time-wasting efforts that can abdicate from providing true value. Therefore, these matters must be deleted or left. Left, in the cases that there might come a time where the matter becomes important and can then be moved into a new quadrant. When focusing on overall vision and goals, the content of the fourth quadrant is not relevant directly, but when working with people the fourth quadrant can also include leisure time. Covey describes that some people are literally beaten up by problems all day every day. The only relief they have is in escaping to the not important, not urgent activities of Quadrant IV. In a more balanced way the fourth quadrant can also be used as a way of recharging away from the important matters. Eisenhower himself was a well-known bridge player — even playing nightly up to D-Day — and was famously criticized for his many golf trips while in office. The key being that these activities were a way of balancing the many stressful aspects of being a political leader. However, if you're not intentional about it, the way you spend your downtime can actually drain your energy, passion, and creativity.
Project, Program, and Portfolio Management
The prioritization tool, inspired by Dwight D. Eisenhower, particularly supports managers in prioritizing different tasks involved in complex projects, programs, or portfolios. Being able to focus and prioritize attention to the right tasks in the right way is a fundamental responsibility of a manager. The way in which a manager is able to self-manage is crucial for the overall performance of a team. Since projects are undertaken by people and for people, emotional intelligence—the ability to understand one’s self and effectively sustain working relationships with others—is critical in project team environments. Self-management, also known as self-regulation, is the ability to control and redirect disruptive feelings and impulses. It is the ability to think before acting, suspending snap judgments, and impulsive decisions.
Self-management is relevant to all members and all ranks of a team. According to the PMBOK 2021, part of reviewing the processes of the project team is by reviewing task boards to determine if there are bottlenecks, if the process of work is flowing at the expected rate, and if there are any impediments that are blocking progress. Utilizing the Eisenhower matrix when reviewing tasks for the team can help assess tasks on an individual and a managing level. It can assist managers in assessing their own work and optimizing their time by delegating tasks that fall into the third quadrant. The third quadrant, as described in figure 1 entails tasks that are good for delegating urgent, but less important tasks. Also a way of empowering the team by assigning tasks and allowing for independent decision making. Project managers and project teams make many decisions daily. Some decisions may be fairly inconsequential to the project outcome, such as where to go for a team lunch and others will be very impactful, such as what development approach to use, which tool to use, or what vendor to select. The goal is to make decisions quickly while engaging the diverse knowledge of a group in an inclusive and respectful manner. Some decisions may be made in a different direction than some people prefer, but everyone has an opportunity to explain their position. In the end, the deciding authority, whether an individual or a group, makes a decision based on the presented analysis and with consideration for stakeholder expectations.
In their study on task management systems, Jyothi, N. S., and Parkavi, A. describe that the essence of time management is to make the most amount of progress toward the goals with the least amount of effort. A key way to do that is to prioritize the tasks and projects that people work on individually and collectively as a team. When beginning the task of prioritization, one should have a clear grasp of the objective and the resources available, generally, time is the least scarce resource because it cannot be replaced or replenished. Every project has a purpose and understanding that purpose is critical for people to commit their time and energy in the right direction toward achieving the project's purpose. This also comes into play when using the Eisenhower matrix, as the understanding of the overall purpose helps determine the importance of tasks.
Though the matrix is split into four equal sections, Covey argues that the most optimal way to utilize the tool is with an emphasis on the second quadrant, see figure 3. The second quadrant is the heart of effective personal management. It deals with things that are not urgent but are important. It deals with things like building relationships, writing a personal mission statement, long-range planning, exercising, preventive maintenance, and preparation - all those things we know we need to do, but somehow seldom get around to doing, because they aren’t urgent.
Whether it be personal management or the managing of a project, program, or portfolio, focussing on the important goals and tasks, scheduling and planning ahead, and thinking strategically will strengthen the outcome as it is based on being proactive and effective in all aspects of the work.
As with anything, there are certain limitations to the Eisenhower Decision Matrix. Especially when considering the PEOPLE of PPPM, the human element is not fully embedded in the urgency/importance matrix. It can be argued that the factors of the matrix do not take into account the people who will be completing the tasks. What is their skill set, and do the tasks fall in line with the rank or position of the person? The matrix will differ depending on the person who is analyzing the tasks. Some tasks might be in the first quadrant for an associate compared to a project manager who would delegate the task, as they have more important and pressing matters to consider.
This is also argued by H. Bratterud et al. who describe it as a missing third dimension, the fitness dimension. The fitness dimension is described to have two components: (1) Capability: is the agent the most capable to accomplish this task? Certain tasks require training (e.g., home electrical work) or practice (e.g., a piano recital). In fact, evidence shows that aligning tasks with strengths or capabilities increases productivity and satisfaction. In addition, the agent must not have the ability to delegate to someone else who is more trained or practiced. (2) Ipseity: does completing this task contribute to the agent’s ipseity (sense of self)? The agent has values, be it explicitly stated in a mission statement or informally as goals. We ask the agent to assess: Does this task contribute to a “Big Hairy Audacious Goal”?
The Sung Diagram takes into consideration, the capabilities and the identity of the individual doing the tasks. Using the Sung Diagram, H. Bratterud et al. describe that after deciding whether or not the task is important, urgent, and fit, the task is assigned one of the eight regions (or outcomes); see Fig. 4. The rules for the outcome have simple overarching principles: (1) Delegation: If the task is not fit, then the agent should delegate the task. (2) Re-evaluation: Tasks that are urgent must be re-evaluated for their importance and fitness. Tasks that are fit but not important should be critically evaluated.
Covey, S.R.: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change
In his book, 7 Habits, Covey talks about what is important versus what is urgent, as he describes the Eisenhower Matrix and the most effective way to prioritize tasks. This book is mainly focused on the individual, as it is based on personal growth and change. This is the 25th edition of the book, and it continues to stay relevant for the lead at a large organization in a Fortune 500 company or the newly graduate, discussing principles providing enduring and universal truths for effective, values-based leadership. Covey put Eisenhower's words into theory in a way that is constructive and functional.
The 7 Habits is a must-read for anyone who seeks to understand how to inspire and motivate others. It remains one of the most important business books of our time.
— KEVIN TURNER, COO of Microsoft Corporation
The Sung Diagram: Revitalizing the Eisenhower Matrix. Diagrammatic Representation and Inference
The paper by H. Bratterud et al. identifies a collection of scenarios in which the traditional Eisenhower matrix provides misleading suggestions and proposes an extension to the matrix, the Sung Diagram, that addresses the misleading suggestions illustrated with examples and implementation in a web application. The method behind the Sung Diagram and the utilization of a third binary variable, illustrated by a Venn diagram, is described and exemplified.
A study on Task Management System. 2016 International Conference on Research Advances in Integrated Navigation Systems (RAINS)
The Task Management study explores a Task Matrix based on the Eisenhower Method, with the goal of gaining a general agreement as to which features should take priority over which other features if all work cannot be completed by the deadline.
Avoid the “Urgency Trap” with the Eisenhower Matrix, from Todoist.com, is written by Laura Scroggs, freelance writer, Ph.D. candidate, and pug mom living in Minneapolis, MN. It is based on Covey, S. R.’s book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change, and provides an overview of the matrix as well as information on how to implement the Eisenhower Matrix in Todoist.
Eisenhower Matrix: How to Prioritise and Master Productivity, from TechTello.com, is written by author and founder of Techtello, Vinita Bansal. Bansal is a technology enthusiast, passionate about building great teams and scaling organizations.
- ↑ 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 Project Management: A guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK guide), 7th Edition (2021).
- ↑ 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 2.8 Avoid the “Urgency Trap” with the Eisenhower Matrix. Todoist. Retrieved February 08, 2022, from, Link: https://todoist.com/productivity-methods/eisenhower-matrix#the-mere-urgency-effect-aka-why-were-bad-at-prioritization/
- ↑ 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 3.8 Bansal, V. (2021, May 19). Eisenhower Matrix: How to Prioritise and Master Productivity. TechTello. Retrieved February 08, 2022, from, Link: https://www.techtello.com/eisenhower-productivity-matrix/
- ↑ Baer, D. (2014, April 10). Dwight Eisenhower nailed a major insight about productivity. Business Insider. Retrieved February 08, 2022, from, Link: https://www.businessinsider.com/dwight-eisenhower-nailed-a-major-insight-about-productivity-2014-4?r=US&IR=T/
- ↑ Eisenhower, D.D.: Address at the Second Assembly of the World Council of Churches (1954). Eisenhower attributes this to a former college president.
- ↑ Ngandam, H., valery mfondoum, & MAKOUET, I. (2019). "Eisenhower matrix * Saaty AHP = Strong actions prioritization? Theoretical literature and lessons drawn from empirical evidences." IAETSD JOURNAL FOR ADVANCED RESEARCH IN APPLIED SCIENCES.
- ↑ Asana. (n.d.). The Eisenhower Matrix: How to prioritize your to-do list. Asana. Retrieved March 09, 2022, from, Link: https://asana.com/resources/eisenhower-matrix
- ↑ 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 8.5 Bratterud, H., Burgess, M., Fasy, B. T., Millman, D. L., Oster, T., & Sung, E. C. (2020). The Sung Diagram: Revitalizing the Eisenhower Matrix. Diagrammatic Representation and Inference, Vol 12169(LNCS), 498–502., Link: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-54249-8_43
- ↑ 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 9.5 9.6 9.7 Covey, S.R. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. 25th anniversary edn. Simon & Schuster (2013)
- ↑ Jyothi, N. S., & Parkavi, A. (2016). A study on Task Management System. 2016 International Conference on Research Advances in Integrated Navigation Systems (RAINS)., Link: https://doi.org/10.1109/rains.2016.7764421