How to Prioritize Tasks With the Eisenhower Matrix Productivity System

Joel Lee 17-07-2017

To-do list apps are all the rage these days. Science has proven that lists really do encourage productivity, and you can further boost productivity using tricks like making your to-do list public. Some people even use their email inboxes as to-do lists.


But what if you’ve tried all that and none of it works?

Lucky for you, alternative productivity methods 5 New Productivity Techniques You Probably Haven’t Heard Of If you are still searching for the best way to boost your productivity, try one of these better alternatives to Pomodoro and GTD. Remember to stop looking once you found a "good enough" solution. Read More  exist. And if you find that regular to-do lists are too troublesome or too overwhelming, then we recommend trying an old-but-effective technique called the Eisenhower Matrix.

What Is the Eisenhower Matrix?

The Eisenhower Matrix is a 2×2 grid of boxes. The top row is for tasks that are “Important” while the bottom row is for tasks that are “Not Important.” At the same time, the left column is for tasks that are “Urgent” while the right row is for tasks that are “Not Urgent.” Here’s what that looks like:

How to Prioritize Tasks With the Eisenhower Matrix Productivity System eisenhower matrix basic

To most people, the terms Important and Urgent are synonymous, so let’s take a moment to define the difference between them:

  • Important — Tasks that contribute to your long-term goals and values, whether personal, professional, etc. Importance is all about relevance. One way to decide if a task is important is to ask yourself: “Can I still reach my goals and stay true to my values if I skip this task?”
  • Urgent — Tasks that need to be handled by the end of the day. If your schedule has more leeway, you may prefer by the end of the week. Either way, urgency is all about time. One way to decide if a task is urgent is to ask yourself: “When is the deadline for this task?”

Before you can decide whether a task is important or not, you need to know your own goals and values. For many, career progression is a long-term goal, so tasks directly related to that are important. Or if you value family most, then getting home on time may be important.

But how can a task be urgent yet not important? Remember that urgency is only about time. Think of the deadline. Suppose today is International Coffee Day and your local coffee shop is giving out free coffees. If you don’t take advantage of that today, the opportunity is lost — but free coffee has no relevance to your long-term goals or values. It’s urgent, but not important.

Using these definitions, it becomes easier to describe the kinds of tasks that belong in each of the four boxes. We can even think of the matrix in this way:

How to Prioritize Tasks With the Eisenhower Matrix Productivity System eisenhower matrix complete


Why Use the Eisenhower Matrix?

The Eisenhower Matrix is simply a way to prioritize your tasks.

To-do lists are great at tracking what you need to do, but it’s not always easy to determine which tasks have higher priority. I’ve personally never used the “Priority” feature in any to-do list app because I always end up tagging everything as “High Priority” — and when everything is high priority, nothing is.

Furthermore, when you look at a to-do list and see 30 piled up tasks, how do you decide which task to tackle? “Start with the easiest,” some say. “No, start with the hardest,” others say. But what’s easy and what’s hard? It’s never black and white. Often times, I’ve wasted 10, 15, or even 30 minutes just trying to pick my task!

How to Prioritize Tasks With the Eisenhower Matrix Productivity System messy to do list overwhelming
So many tasks. Where do I even begin?


This is why the Eisenhower Matrix shines. Unlike a single to-do list, the matrix is self-prioritizing. It tells you which task to handle next. It lessens cognitive load because only the Now and Later boxes truly matter. And if you’re ever crunched for time, it helps you see which tasks you can skip.

In addition, the matrix has two other minor benefits. First, it forces you to be more mindful of each task. Instead of throwing everything into one big messy to-do pile, you actively decide if tasks are worth your time up front, keeping your actual to-do list tight. Second, it constantly reminds you of your goals and values.

The only problem is that the Eisenhower Matrix can be a bit tricky at first. In particular, new users tend to get tripped up by the Delegate and Trivial boxes. There is a learning curve, so let’s go through a practical example of how to set up a matrix, organize tasks, and get through one day.

How to Use the Eisenhower Matrix

Even though the Eisenhower Matrix is conceptually a square of four boxes, you can practically approach it as four separate to-do lists: a Now list, a Delegate list, a Later list, and a Trivial list. The two urgent lists come before the non-urgent lists.


I find that Trello is awesome for this. Set up a board for each sphere of your life (e.g. personal, professional, church, hobby) and set up these four lists in each of the boards. Or if you don’t have much going on, you could use one board for all tasks. It’s up to you. Don’t like Trello? Consider these alternative Kanban tools Goodbye, Trello! 5 Alternative Free Kanban Board Tools Trello is an incredible app for project management and organizing your tasks. But there are other kanban apps that could be ideal for your tasks. Let's talk about the best Trello alternatives. Read More .

Once your lists are ready, you can start adding tasks:

How to Prioritize Tasks With the Eisenhower Matrix Productivity System trello eisenhower matrix start

Let’s say you’re a traditional office worker who wants to use the Eisenhower Matrix to become more productive at work. This will be the scenario that drives the rest of this example, but it should be easy to apply these concepts otherwise.

What’s on your plate for today? First thing that comes to mind: email. Let’s create a task for reaching inbox zero, which is urgent (email should be emptied daily) and important (we’re talking work-related emails here):

How to Prioritize Tasks With the Eisenhower Matrix Productivity System trello eisenhower matrix email

Today happens to be Pretzel Day at the office and you’re craving a free pretzel with the works. This might be urgent, but it’s not important:

How to Prioritize Tasks With the Eisenhower Matrix Productivity System trello eisenhower matrix pretzel

Your boss reminds you that the documentation report for your team’s last project is due by 4 PM, which is both urgent and important:

How to Prioritize Tasks With the Eisenhower Matrix Productivity System trello eisenhower matrix documentation

He also reminds you that your team’s budget request for your next project is due by end-of-day on Friday. This is important, but not urgent:

How to Prioritize Tasks With the Eisenhower Matrix Productivity System trello eisenhower matrix budget

The office manager comes to you and says that paper and ink supplies are running low. You need to place an order as soon as you can — but this doesn’t have much to do with your careers goals or values:

How to Prioritize Tasks With the Eisenhower Matrix Productivity System trello eisenhower matrix supplies

It’s early summer (in this scenario) and the office is getting too muggy with the wet season. Everyone’s productivity would skyrocket with a good dehumidifier, not to mention all the other benefits of reducing humidity 4 Health Benefits of Monitoring Temp & Humidity at Home Did you know that there are health benefits of using smart home products? That's right. One or two smart purchases could drastically improve your quality of life at home. Read More .

You make a note to bring this up, but it’s neither urgent nor important:

How to Prioritize Tasks With the Eisenhower Matrix Productivity System trello eisenhower matrix dehumidifier

On and on it goes. Meetings crop up, planning needs to be done, you remember things that you want to do, etc. Eventually, your matrix (i.e. lists) will fill up, and the best part is that it’s way less intimidating than one master list of tasks:

How to Prioritize Tasks With the Eisenhower Matrix Productivity System trello eisenhower matrix example

Whenever you’re free for another task, simply start at the left and move right. You should tackle everything in the Now and Delegate lists before concerning yourself with the non-urgent lists.

If you can delegate, tackle the Delegate list first and offload as many of those tasks as you can. Then go through the Now list. Once you get through the Now list, consider your day a success. You can now get a head start on the Later list or end the day early.

If you can’t delegate, start with the Now list. If you get through the Now list and you have more time, you have a choice: treat the Delegate list as a Now list, get a head start on the Later list, or end the day early. In practice, you’ll probably want to alternate between Delegate and Later tasks.

At day’s end, go through the Delegate list and dump all tasks whose deadlines have passed. Keep the ones you can still do. Save them for tomorrow.

At the start of the next day, go through the Later list and decide which tasks are now urgent. Shift them into the Now list. Do the same for the Trivial list, except shift those tasks into the Delegate list. Add any new tasks that crop up throughout the day. Rinse and repeat.

When To-Do Lists Don’t Work for You

Note that you can modify the Eisenhower Matrix however you want. For example, instead of using it to guide your entire day, you can sort your email with its own matrix Here's the Most Decisive Email Sorting Solution You Will Ever Need One simple sorting solution will ensure you are always on top of your email messages. You need just four labels or folders to manage your inbox and reduce your email stress. Read More . The whole concept of urgency/importance can prove useful in all kinds of cases beyond work and email.

A lot of people have found great success with the Eisenhower Matrix. But if you’ve reached this point and you don’t think it’ll help, that’s okay. Keep looking for the method that works for you. When all is said and done, the only productivity technique that matters The Best Productivity Tool Is The One You Actually Use In a world chasing productivity, each new and shiny productivity app promises something new. But do we lose something when we change our productivity apps too often? Read More is the one you actually use.

Do you find the Eisenhower Matrix helpful? If not, what productivity technique do you use to stay organized and ahead? Share with us in the comments below!

Image Credit: Amy Bull via

Related topics: Organization Software, Planning Tool, To-Do List.

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  1. Jim
    July 27, 2017 at 10:33 pm

    Any tool I use I would want to automate some of the process. Too many tools today fall short in a lot of areas and we just accept it. For example. I receive a task today (Wed) that is due next Friday. I want to be able to set a target for the task that when it is hit the task is promoted from Important to Urgent. I don't want to have to read through everything multiple times. Look at the list in the morning and off I go. Add to it during the day if need from any app. Kind of Super to-do lists.

  2. Ndsk
    July 26, 2017 at 7:28 pm

    1. What if you don't have the resources (e.g., monetary, people, friends, family, etc) to delegate? What do you do with that category?

    2. What if you're so far behind in life that you're to do list is about the size of the OED in book form. How can you use the Eisenhower Matrix to get your life back?

    3. Exactly how do you apply the Matrix to Just email especially is you've got 200,000 emails in it including 90,000 unread, dating back years?

    • Tina Sieber
      August 6, 2017 at 8:05 pm

      1: You redefine this category.
      Since they're not important, you either let those tasks fall through the cracks or -- if they are recurring -- find a way to automate them. Or you defer them to a time of day when your mental capacity isn't at its best. Maybe you can even stack some of these tasks, like doing laundry and making phone calls. Remember that you'll want to use your sharpest hours on your most important tasks. If those not important but urgent tasks originate from or affect other people (for example when your friend asked you for a favor or your boss piled unimportant tasks on you or your partner never does their laundry and ran out of underwear), you return those tasks to them, i.e. you ask them to find someone else for it because you can't handle it. Basically, you have to learn to say NO.

      2: You take the time to create categories of To Dos and then you prioritize those using the Eisenhower Matrix. It sounds like you will have to let stuff go. And learn to say NO.

      3: Declare email bankruptcy. Archive all emails older than minimum 3 months, better archive everything older than 1 month. Then make a plan how to deal with email in the future (such as unsubscribing from all email newsletters etc. going forward or at least auto-sorting them out of your inbox into dedicated folders). Once you have a plan in place, apply it to the remaining emails in your inbox, then email your key contacts to let them know you're starting over with email. If an email you archived was important they will contact you again. If you find out that you desperately need anything they sent you, a quick search will fetch it from your archive.

      Hope this helps.

      • Ndsk
        August 7, 2017 at 3:21 am

        These are actually very helpful suggestions. Thanks!

        • Tina Sieber
          August 7, 2017 at 3:35 am

          Easier said than done I'm sure. All the best!

  3. Ken
    July 24, 2017 at 12:26 am

    Things that are urgent but not important should be ignored until things that are important but not urgent are done. I recommend changing the order in which you tackle priorities. Delegating them gets them off YOUR list but just puts them on someone else's list. They are not important, so don't do them at all.

    • Johan Tol
      July 26, 2017 at 8:01 am

      I agree partly. I'd also rather work ahead on things that are important and will be urgent tomorrow than on things that are not important. But things that are unimportant for you are not necessarily unimportant for everyone, so delegating can still be a good thing. And if a task is unimportant for everyone, why even bother to put it on your list?

  4. Heather Cariou
    July 22, 2017 at 1:04 am

    This is fine for anyone who does not have ADHD. Our principle disability is not be PHYSIOLOGICALLY capable of prioritizing no matter what system you can devise.

    • Andrew
      July 23, 2017 at 5:04 am

      I wholeheartedly disagree, and request you speak for yourself next time and not everyone else with a particular disease.
      I have severe ADHD and without systems like this I'd have no hope of managing the technological operations of a successful online store. Perhaps you just haven't found a system that will work for you.

      Ponder how you were able to stay focused long enough to write your comment. How did you manage to read the article if you are so physiologically unable to function at the level required to categorize incoming tasks into 1 of 4 categories?

      I think your issue is a psychological one and nothing more. I think you're lazy, or not trying hard enough. Either way, don't lump those suffering from ADHD into the same category as you, there are a bunch of us that don't whine and take action to better ourselves instead.

      • Ndsk
        July 26, 2017 at 7:41 pm

        Don't judge others with ADHD by yourself. You're just as bad as people without ADHD who don't even believe it exists and like you say it's just a form of laziness. ADHD is different for everyone. There is an incredible range in severity, which is why ADHD meds are one of the only meds prescribed based on severity not weight. And the OP is correct according to the medical research on ADHD dating since the 1950s. These tasks are inherently overwhelming to impossible for the majority, not necessarily all and not necessarily you, but to almost all others who suffer from ADHD. Also, physiological, develepmental, experiential, among an innumerable list of other factors affect the presentation of ADHD in any given person and the ability to address the serious challenges posed by it. Your particular life circumstances past and current may be what allow you to have ADHD and function in what you are saying is an effective manner. You may not be able to do so under even the slightest different circumstances , in which case you could quite easily and but for the grace of G-d. be a whiny , lazy person with ADHD as well. You're lucky you e found a way to manage your ADHD. But that doesn't mean everyone can. And to be honest, given the tone of your response, even if you have managed your ADHD, you have many other life and personal skills to master, including empathy and how to write appropriate, respectful responses to other people's statements and how to deal with your own anger management challenges.

        • Tina Sieber
          August 6, 2017 at 8:12 pm

          Thank you for the excellent comment!

          In addition, I would stress that it's key to get help. If you're overwhelmed with the consequences of your condition, you might no longer be able to help yourself. If you're not at fault, you don't have to feel guilty. The only bad thing you can do is to not seek and accept help. This may be professional help, a self-help group, medication (see a doctor first!!!), or just confiding in a friend or family member and taking it from there. Start somewhere.

          Here's hoping that you'll find a solution to our challenge. All the best!

  5. Brent Dunn
    July 18, 2017 at 4:02 am

    The problem I run into when using this is that Urgent/Important are not binary. For example, if I have things that are due in two hours, at the end of the day today, tomorrow, at the end of the week, etc. - where do I draw the line between Urgent and Non-Urgent?

    The best solution I've found is to use a spreadsheet with multiple columns/rows for each quadrant. This way I can put Urgency and Importance on a spectrum. Unfortunately, it's a little clunky to do it this way.

    • Robin
      July 24, 2017 at 12:59 am

      Can you respond and provide your spreadsheet "template"? I'm interested in what you have set up! I'm a firm believer that if something man-made exists, there must be a better/faster/easier/less expensive/more productive way to do it. Since what I've been trying hasn't been working too well, yours may be the better way for me!!!

      • Brent Dunn
        July 24, 2017 at 2:47 am

        I don't have a template. Because this is kind of clunky, I only do it as an ad-hoc solution when I'm feeling really overwhelmed and need to figure out my priorities. I normally start by dividing a spreadsheet into quadrants using the cell borders. I keep maybe five columns in each quadrant but it could be more or less depending on what I need at the time. The number of rows really depends on how many tasks I have.

        After dividing the sheet, I'll start entering the things I need to do. The urgency (columns) is relative depending on the situation. I might start out with some guidelines -- Column A is due in the next 1-2 hours, column B before lunch, C is mid-afternoon, D is by close of business, etc. -- but this depends on what kind of time scale I'm looking at.

        Importance is even more relative. I don't have a rigid priority system, I just try to put things that are more important on the upper rows. Even if they have different urgency I'll ask myself, "if they were both due now, which would get priority?" I try to keep each task on its own row unless I really have trouble choosing which is more important.

        I hope that helps...? You could easily do the same thing with a piece of paper, but on a spreadsheet, I find it easier to cut/paste things as I think about them.

        • Johan Tol
          July 26, 2017 at 7:52 am

          In this article Joel suggests "Now" is today, and "Later" tomorrow and further. Maybe you can define "Now" as the coming 2 hours and "Later" from 2 hours and further. Instead of "rinse and repeat" every start of the day, you could "rinse and repeat" every 2 hours. In that case you can still use a tool like Trello in which you can drag your tasks (horizontally and vertically (=priority per column) more easily than you can do in a spreadsheet.

  6. JessicaG
    July 17, 2017 at 6:39 pm

    I appreciate how you defined urgent and important. I've tried to use the Eisenhower Matrix before but everything seemed to end up in the urgent and important box. I'm going to try and use your definitions and see if that helps!