Goal-setting and activity control on the basis of the Eisenhower matrix



We have already written how to cope with fear and procrastination halting us on our way to achieving the goals. However, as soon as we’ve left the “dead zone” of inactivity, and motivated ourselves on the result, we can go to the other extremity: after a long 8-12 hour workday it’s impossible to say what, in fact, we’ve managed to do. And most importantly, what result have we got from our efforts? Has it moved us towards the desired goals?

Subsequently, it’s easy to find yourself in a situation when you are “as busy as a bee”, but the things seem to keep standing still. Only the fatigue is accumulating. The feeling of the heights achieved has never come.

The Problem of Goal-setting

Greek King SisyphusIn time management, this issue has received a name of “goal-setting problem”. The consequences of errors in the goal-setting can be immense: it seems that life becomes a series of exhausting working marathons with no visible results. It’s similar to the labour of the ancient Greek King Sisyphus, who was sentenced after his death to rolling a huge boulder uphill then watching it roll back down again as soon as it had reached the top. And so – eternally.


Selecting the Goals and Priorities

Despite the fact, that it’s a large-scale problem, and its consequences are of complex and protracted nature, it’s still possible to fight it. To do this, before any operations you need to properly set goals and get your priorities straight. How to do this, we’ll describe down below, but now, please, concentrate on a sole thought:

Don’t kick start the tasks in hand, if you can’t answer the question of how far and to which goal this or that task will move you after its implementation.

The operation method of “doing-at-random-everything-in-sight ” can be almost perfectly good to “fire the inner engine”, “wake up” and start to do something. For this purpose, I usually employ household chores – their assortment is quite limited, their implementation makes the results immediately visible and the refusal to do them wouldn’t be very comfortable anyway. This activity is quite possible to be performed in a “seen&done” mode.

But when it comes to achieving the goals within the frame of a working project, before us we have a practically unlimited scope for action, which literally means we can do “anything”. In the time pressure mode (namely, this resource is always limited), the above technique will be unproductive. So, here only the golden rule of “first think, then do” will save us.

Quick Goalsetting

Then the question arises: is there any effective method to “think fast” not to make it a half day task? Yes, it is appropriate here to use a method known to almost everyone who has ever tried to see into time management and which we have headlined in this post. It’s the Eisenhower matrix. It has been already described before in other posts (we’ll provide their more or less complete list at the end of ours). However, we’d like to offer our own way of using this matrix, which we’ve already probed in practice.

Traditionally, the invention of the matrix is attributed to Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th US president, who until then had been the Five-star General in the US Army. However, this is not quite true. Rather, the matrix got its name from the famous President’s quotation:

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

Matrix allows you to quickly and confidently enough sort out your tasks, even if you have a lot. All you need is to go through the list of tasks (which you have sure “dumped” out of your head by the GTD methodology) and answer the two questions for each task:

  • Important? – Yes/No
  • Urgent? – Yes/No

Depending on the combination of answers, each task summarily falls into one of the quadrants of the matrix, divided into 4 quadrants according to the importance and urgency of the problem.

Eisenhower matrix

We must say, the Eisenhower matrix has got plenty of names and was presented by various adepts and creators of time management systems in many different ways. In particular, Stephen Covey, the famous author and teacher, called the matrix “Urgency/Importance matrix”; he also recommended to use it in his book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”. This method is sometimes called “a visual option of “4D Principle” which will be discussed below.

How to deal with Each Quadrant

There are multiple modifications of the matrix itself and a variety of interpretations of how to deal with the tasks in a particular quadrant. We will dwell on two options, the first seems to us most handy.

Method 1: DoPlanDelegateEliminate

“Do-Plan-Delegate-Eliminate” — so sounds thesuccess formula”, and exactly such actions are to be performed with the tasks from the respective quadrants.

Quadrant 1. Urgent and ImportantIn this quadrant something happens: a fire, or a crying child, or an unrecoverable project error. That’s a “bad” quadrant, it should be avoided if possible. Occasionally, you can “put” here tasks from the second quadrant, which you would like to close immediately for some irrational reason.


Quadrant 2. Important, but Not UrgentIn this quadrant, your most productive tasks are placed. As in this case “there’s no rush”, we are talking here about a reasonable planning and qualitative performance of each task. This is exactly on what it’s reasonable to spend the time today.

You may start doing things one by one, and you can go through the list of tasks from this quadrant once again, asking yourself the questions: “Is it important?” and “Is this urgent?”, thus making one more quadrant in the frame of the second quadrant, and further detalizing your goals.

Quadrant 3. Not Important, but Urgent.  This is the most unproductive quadrant, because due to their urgency, particularly these things “snatch” you out of the flow of your productive activities and force you to “roll the boulder up the hill” aimlessly. These tasks don’t move you towards your goals; usually, they are: informational noises of all kinds, such as meetings, telethons or talks “about nothing” instead of making decisions. It is recommended to delegate these tasks to “someone else.” You may delegate or not do them at all, but the main thing is that the tasks from this quadrant are not performed by you personally.

Quadrant 4. Not Urgent and Not ImportantJust forget about these tasks. Indeed, you should be able to say “no” to some things. Ideally, this quadrant had better remain empty. However, most often there fall various requests from the people who are unlikely to do something for you in response; and also dreams from the category of “I’ve always wanted to find a yellow flowery elephant on wheels and give him a ride.” It’s not rational to spend your time on every spontaneous desire, if you want to achieve your goals.

Method 2: 4D Principle

In fact, “4D” doesn’t always describe the quadrants of the matrix “Important/Urgent”, because there exist various interpretations, yet one of them fits the above description and can also be applied to the four quadrants:

Do, Delegate, Defer, or Dump
Do, Decide (in which order), Delegate, Delete

4D Principle

The main beauty of the method is its quickness. First, it represents the “Task Statistics” visually. You can immediately assess the effectiveness of your time resources used. Second, answering “yes” or “no” to only two questions, you split all your tasks into 4 groups. If you initially had the mission to “divide your tasks into 4 groups,” it would’ve taken you much longer.

Checking the Effectiveness

Good time management

You can use the Eisenhower method not only to sort out the tasks into those that move you towards the goal, and those that hinder. You can also use it to assess the overall effectiveness. Ideally, as soon as you have offhandedly answered “yes and no” to the two already known questions for each task, you will find out that almost all of your problems, “fell” into the second quadrant.

But of course, most often it doesn’t happen, and then the matrix clearly shows where you have a distortion and where you risk to find yourself at the end of the day, if you don’t shift to the productive tasks.

To apply the method, there is a considerable amount of mobile, web- and desktop software. And to set the goals and achieve them there is a service – SmartProgress, which has already helped implement over 35,000 goals. And which goal is yours?

SmartProgress. Service to achieve goals