Strategic Procrastination with the Eisenhower Productivity Matrix

Learning Objectives

  • Understand the concept of the Eisenhower Matrix and its significance in productivity management.
  • Learn how to classify tasks into the Eisenhower Matrix based on their urgency and importance.
  • Appreciate the difference between being a master and a slave to your tasks and learn how to prioritize tasks effectively.

The Eisenhower Matrix is a productivity tool developed by President Eisenhower, an important commander in World War II who supervised the invasions of North Africa and Normandy, and later became the 34th president of the United States.

As you might imagine, Eisenhower’s responsibilities required him to quickly distinguish between items that were urgent and important, and those that were not. Importance is big picture stuff, meaning important in the big picture of your life. Importance is strategic. Urgent is usually smaller picture stuff, upon which the bigger picture often depends. Like paying your bills. If your power shuts down, your dreams of writing the great American novel won’t matter, because your word processor won’t work anymore. By crossing two dimensions of urgency and importance, Eisenhower created the matrix that bears his name.

How do you use the Eisenhower Matrix? Easy. Just go through all your To-Do Lists and check off the items that are both important and urgent. That’s it. These are “necessity items” that belong on today’s agenda. Without such mission critical milestones in place, your whole endeavor just falls apart. Putting out fires immediately reduces your stress level. Deadlines also fall into this category. Getting beyond items that are important and urgent feels like pulling back from the brink.

Some items are important, but not urgent. Since they are not urgent, you can schedule these items for later. Make a mental note, however, of which items will become urgent as time and circumstances change. Note also that working on items that are important but not urgent can be considered a trap, because you are solving problems out of order. Only work these items when your necessity items are done. If you complete these, consider yourself either super-productive or obsessive-compulsive. Just kidding.

Some items are urgent, but not important. They are actionable today, but occupy a position lower on today’s priority list. Many of these items represent interruptions that distract you from your strategic focus on the necessity items. Delegate if possible.

Some items are not important, not urgent. Consider deleting them entirely as actually subtracting from your productivity. If you have plenty of time, that’s fine. Otherwise, why waste time you don’t have?

Some not important, not urgent items comprise a special category. They offer you short-term relief from your stress through distraction or entertainment. Examples include checking Facebook and watching cat videos on YouTube. Such items are simply a waste of time.

Other items fall into the not-important, not-urgent category that were never recorded on your list, but you did them anyway. Maybe you stopped to play a game on your phone, which soaked up 20 minutes. We get sucked into these “time off task” activities because they offer short-term stress relief. Remember, negative reinforcement is a huge reason that anxiety exists. If you experience short-term relief from activities that distract you, while adding nothing toward working your way out from under your pile, you’re making it much harder on yourself in the long run.

Master versus Slave

Why use the productivity matrices? Classifying items into quadrants immediately brings you into greater control of your life. Even better, the Eisenhower Matrix gives you direct evidence on the extent that you are in control of your own life.

Why is such evidence important? Being master of your own destiny is not about getting everything done. Instead, being master of your own destiny is about knowing what to do with everything that’s nagging at your attention.

This is a crucial distinction. If you make your life about getting everything done, there’s a word for that…it’s called being a slave. When you’re a slave, you’re not in control of your life, by definition. Your function is simply to receive commands. This is what happens when you 1) perceive everything that’s important as urgent, or 2) perceive everything that’s urgent as important. Make these mistakes, and you’re setting yourself up for exhaustion…and failure.

Let’s say your To-Do List contains twenty items. Doing all twenty is probably not possible. If you continue to feel the pressure of all twenty items, then you’ve just amplified your stress. You’re essentially making every item urgent and important. Life is not like this, so don’t do this to yourself. You deserve better. By processing these items through the Eisenhower matrix, you can quickly identify what needs your attention, what deserves your attention, and what needs and deserves strategic procrastination. My bet is that your twenty-item To Do List shrinks down to four or five urgent, important items. That’s fifteen or sixteen things you don’t have to do today. Do them if you so desire. Do them if you want to feel affirmed by getting out ahead of your obligations. But if not, feel free to schedule some quality time with the people you love. Or, go fishing!

Reading Comprehension Questions

1. What is the Eisenhower Matrix?

  • A. A mathematical theorem
  • B. A productivity tool
  • C. A military strategy
  • D. A type of computer software

2. According to the text, what does being a master of your own destiny entail?

  • A. Completing all tasks on your To-Do List
  • B. Knowing what to do with everything that’s nagging at your attention
  • C. Having no tasks at all
  • D. Ignoring all non-urgent tasks

3. What happens when you perceive everything that’s important as urgent?

  • A. You become more productive
  • B. You set yourself up for exhaustion and failure
  • C. You complete all tasks faster
  • D. You become a master of your own destiny

4. Which of the following can be classified as important but not urgent according to the text?

  • A. Paying your bills
  • B. Writing the great American novel
  • C. Meeting deadlines
  • D. Putting out fires

5. Why should items that are not important and not urgent be deleted?

  • A. They provide short-term stress relief
  • B. They distract you from important tasks
  • C. They subtract from your productivity
  • D. All of the above


1. B – A productivity tool

2. B – Knowing what to do with everything that’s nagging at your attention

3. B – You set yourself up for exhaustion and failure

4. B – Writing the great American novel

5. C – They subtract from your productivity