Using The Eisenhower Decision Matrix To Triage Your Inbox

Dwight D. Eisenhower knew how to get organised. Not only did he mastermind the Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944, he also kept those pesky Commies at bay in the early years of the Cold War during his stint as 34th President Of The United States. How did he do it? A really simple matrix that helped him decide what to spend his time on.


Eisenhower famously said, “I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”

What does this boil down to?

Important – these are the actions that carry us towards our goals. It might be what needs to happen to complete a work project, or getting your finances in place ready to buy a house; if you don’t complete them, you’ll find yourself going nowhere.

Urgent – this is the stuff that demands our attention in the moment; from the crying baby, to the phone ringing off the hook; it needs action. And it needs it now.

Simple enough? You’d think so.

Where things get interesting, though, is what happens when the two mix together. How do you react to the urgent and important, but still keep your eye on the ball in the important but not urgent game?

This is where Stephen Covey’s Time Management Matrix comes in. Grabbing onto Eisenhower’s concept and running with it, Covey created a four quadrant matrix designed to help you triage your incoming “stuff” and decide what to do with it.


Urgent / Important

The red quadrant. This is where you’ll find the crying baby. You can’t ignore the “stuff” that lands here; you’ve got to take action, and you’ve got to take it now. In the office, it means firefighting; it’s the tasks that blow up unexpectedly and need resolving straight away.

Non-Urgent / Important

This is where you find the good stuff. Actions you take in this quadrant are what drive your development and move you towards your goals. If you can spend 80% of your time here, then you’ll prevent things blowing up and landing in your red quadrant.

Urgent / Non-Important

This is where the ringing phone comes in. It’s demanding your attention, but is it important? You won’t know until you pick it up. You’ve got two choices here; get it out the way as quickly as possible (answer it), or delegate it (let someone else answer it).

Non-Urgent / Non-Important

If it’s not urgent, and it’s not important, then why are you thinking about doing it? Drop “stuff” in this quadrant from your list as quickly as possible; and don’t look back. Non-urgent, non-important tasks are little more than time-wasters. Taking action on these will do nothing more than keep you away from your goals.

To get the most out of the Eisenhower‘s approach, you need to triage your incoming “stuff”. Whenever anything that needs action appears on your radar, ask yourself “is it urgent, is it important?” Deciding which quadrant it lands in will make it much easier to decide what happens next; do it, defer it, delegate it, drop it.

Further Reading:

How to be More Productive and Eliminate Time Wasting Activities by Using the “Eisenhower Box”

The Eisenhower Decision Matrix: How to Distinguish Between Urgent and Important Tasks and Make Real Progress in Your Life

Dwight Eisenhower’s Best Productivity Tips

What do you think? Can the Eisenhower Matrix really help you get things done? Let me know in the comments.