Eisenhower Matrix: Untangling Urgent and Important

Episode 113 - 24 Jan 2018

The Eisenhower Matrix might just be the most powerful thing I’ve ever learned.

The chances that you’ve come across if before.

But did you get it? I mean really get it?

There’s real power here. Power that you may have overlooked.

Today I’m going to talk to you about a 2x2 matrix.

But this is no ordinary matrix.

This is the Eisenhower Matrix.

Is it applicable to Agile? Yes it is!

Is it applicable to Lean? Yes it is!

And does it have the power to change your life?

I think it does.

The world of the 2x2 Matrix

This is a two by two matrix.

I’m sure you know how they work.

If we’re talking about a car, the axes might be performance and fuel economy

We’d like it to fast; we’d like it to be economical.

We’d really like it to be fast and economical.

Or a partner.

We’d like a partner that’s smart; we’d like a partner that’s attractive.

But we’d really like a partner that’s smart and attractive.

Or food.

We like food that’s delicious; we like food that’s healthy.

But food that’s delicious and healthy: that’s got to be good.

Same old same old

It’s always the same:

This square - this quadrant at the bottom left - is to be avoided.

These two are good.

But this one, here at the top right: that’s where the real power lies.

The Eisenhower Matrix

What about this one: urgent and important.

(The context being the things on your to-do list.)

No-brainer: urgent and important! Right?


This matrix is a version of ( - I’ll say more about that later) the Eisenhower Matrix.

That’s Eisenhower as in US President Dwight D Eisenhower.

Mental model

Now, we could go through the matrix quadrant by quadrant. And I’m sure you’d get it at an intellectual level.

But I want you to get it at a deeper level.

I want to burn this thing into your skull.

Imagine you’re on a boat.

You look out across the ocean onto a beautiful sunset. And you think to yourself that life doesn’t get better than this.

Suddenly, there’s a loud bang.

What the heck was that?!

Whatever it was it’s damaged the hull.

The boat is taking on water.

Without a moment’s hesitation, you start to bail. As if you life depended on it.

(Because, you know, it kinda does.)


Freeze it there.

This act of bailing; where do you think it falls on this matrix?

Is it important?

Yes: if you don’t do it, the boat sinks.

Is it urgent? Could you, for example, put it off until tomorrow?

No! You have to do it now!

It’s clear: bailing the water out of the sinking “ship” is urgent and important. Slap bang in this quadrant.

So you keep bailing.

But after 15 minutes, it’s clear that you’re not getting anywhere: the level of water isn’t getting any higher… but it isn’t getting any lower either.

There must be something else you could do.

You need to repair the hole.


Where does repairing the hole fit into this matrix?

I hope I don’t have to convince you that it’s important.

Without a repair, this boat doesn’t have much a future. And neither do you!

Is it urgent?

Actually, you could put it off. You could continue to bail.

Forever :)

Repairing the boat is important, but it it’s not urgent.

At least not when compared with bailing.

It lives in this quadrant.

You’re caught in an excruciating conflict between these two quadrants:

You’d love to be able to repair the hole… but if you stop bailing, bad things will happen.

The important thing if being held to ransom by the important important-and-urgent thing.


Then you realise what you must do: with a super-human effort, you bail at double speed.

Then you attempt to repair the hole.

You manage to effect a partial repair. But the water level reaches a dangerous level: you’re forced to return to bailing.

With the hole partially closed, you’re able - eventually - to take a break from bailing, and return to the important task of repairing the hole.

And so it goes on until the repair is complete.


Interesting, isn’t it?

The important-and-not-urgent task was the cure - the antidote - for the important-and-urgent task.

The most powerful quadrant turns out to be this one.

Redrawing the matrix

If you’ve come across the Eisenhower Matrix before, you’ll know that it’s usually drawn with the Urgent axis reversed.

Which has the merit of putting the most powerful quadrant top right.

It’s in this quadrant that the big stuff happens: the major transformations; the huge leaps forward.

We’ll talk more about that in the next episode.