How the Eisenhower Box Can Organize Your Life

When you have tons of things to do, it can be difficult to know what to do first. KREUS/Shutterstock

In a typical day, how many things are scribbled on your to-do list? You might have a key deadline for a work project or family commitments to handle. You know those tasks are hanging over your head, but instead you clean your keyboard, eat a snack or answer a few emails. Why is that?

Those tasks aren't more important, but they are easier. Because you can get them done more quickly and with a lot less hassle, you get the satisfaction of accomplishing something right away.

With that kind of accomplishment euphoria, it's easy to keep procrastinating about the big stuff on your list and to only tackle the simple jobs.

One way to deal with the stress of trying to organize your day is to think inside the box — specifically inside the Eisenhower box.

Presidential inspiration

President Dwight Eisenhower was known for his time management skills. He had a reputation for being highly productive from his days as a five-star general to his time in the Oval Office.

Reportedly, when giving a 1954 speech on the campus of Northwestern University, he quoted a former college 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."

Over the years, the quote has been attributed in various forms to the efficient 34th president. The tenets behind the words were used to create a time-management technique also credited to the former president. Whether or not he actually created this strategy, his name was given to something called the Eisenhower box or the Eisenhower matrix.

Imagine a box with four quadrants. Everything on your to-do list goes in one of the four squares.

Eisenhower matrix
The Eisenhower box is broken down into four simple quadrants. Luna2631/Shutterstock

Author and master-your-habits expert James Clear explains that you separate your actions like this:

  • Urgent and important (tasks you will do immediately)
  • Important, but not urgent (tasks you will schedule to do later)
  • Urgent, but not important (tasks you will delegate to someone else)
  • Neither urgent nor important (tasks that you will eliminate)

It's sometimes difficult to understand the difference between "urgent" and "important." Clear clarifies that, "Urgent tasks are things that you feel like you need to react to: emails, phone calls, texts, news stories." And on the flip side, blogger Brett McKay writes, "Important tasks are things that contribute to our long-term mission, values, and goals."

Using the box

How you use the Eisenhower matrix depends on how you use a to-do list. If you jot things down old-school on a piece of paper, you can just divide your loose leaf into four sections and sort accordingly. Here's a printable template if you want something clean and easy to use.

But if you use your phone or computer, you can use something like this Apple app or Android app to separate virtually.

You may not need to physically use the Eisenhower box at all. It could just be a new mindset to help you approach your workload at the start of each day, writes Cody McLain of Medium.

"It's not the act of placing tasks into separate boxes that is necessary, but the skill of recognizing when you’re in a situation that requires you to prioritize the tasks which demand your attention to avoid procrastinating on them."