How to be More Productive and Eliminate Time Wasting Activities by Using the “Eisenhower Box”

Dwight Eisenhower lived one of the most productive lives you can imagine.

Eisenhower was the 34th President of the United States, serving two terms from 1953 to 1961. During his time in office, he launched programs that directly led to the development of the Interstate Highway System in the United States, the launch of the internet (DARPA), the exploration of space (NASA), and the peaceful use of alternative energy sources (Atomic Energy Act).

Before becoming president, Eisenhower was a five-star general in the United States Army, served as the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II, and was responsible for planning and executing invasions of North Africa, France, and Germany.

At other points along the way, he served as President of Columbia University, became the first Supreme Commander of NATO, and somehow found time to pursue hobbies like golfing and oil painting.

Eisenhower had an incredible ability to sustain his productivity not just for weeks or months, but for decades. And for that reason, it is no surprise that his methods for time management, task management, and productivity have been studied by many people.

His most famous productivity strategy is known as the Eisenhower Box and it’s a simple decision-making tool that you can use right now. Let’s talk about how to be more productive and how Eisenhower’s strategy works.

The Eisenhower Box: How to be More Productive

Eisenhower’s strategy for taking action and organizing your tasks is simple. Using the decision matrix below, you will separate your actions based on four possibilities.

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

The great thing about this matrix is that it can be used for broad productivity plans (“How should I spend my time each week?”) and for smaller, daily plans (“What should I do today?”).

Here is an example of what my Eisenhower Box looks like for today.

how to be more productive

The Difference Between Urgent and Important

What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.
-Dwight Eisenhower

Urgent tasks are things that you feel like you need to react to: emails, phone calls, texts, news stories. Meanwhile, in the words of Brett McKay, “Important tasks are things that contribute to our long-term mission, values, and goals.” [1]

Separating these differences is simple enough to do once, but doing so continually can be tough. The reason I like the Eisenhower Method is that it provides a clear framework for making the decisions over and over again. And like anything in life, consistency is the hard part.

Here are some other observations I’ve made from using this method.

Elimination Before Optimization

A few years ago, I was reading about computer programming when I came across an interesting quote:

“No code is faster than no code.” [2]

In other words, the fastest way to get something done — whether it is having a computer read a line of code or crossing a task off your to-do list — is to eliminate that task entirely. There is no faster way to do something than not doing it at all. That’s not a reason to be lazy, but rather a suggestion to force yourself to make hard decisions and delete any task that does not lead you toward your mission, your values, and your goals.

Too often, we use productivity, time management, and optimization as an excuse to avoid the really difficult question: “Do I actually need to be doing this?” It is much easier to remain busy and tell yourself that you just need to be a little more efficient or to “work a little later tonight” than to endure the pain of eliminating a task that you are comfortable with doing, but that isn’t the highest and best use of your time. [3]

As Tim Ferriss says, “Being busy is a form of laziness — lazy thinking and indiscriminate action.”

I find that the Eisenhower Method is particularly useful because it pushes me to question whether an action is really necessary, which means I’m more likely to move tasks to the “Delete” quadrant rather than mindlessly repeating them. And to be honest, if you simply eliminated all of the things you waste time on each day then you probably wouldn’t need any tips on how to be more productive at the things that matter.

Does This Help Me Accomplish My Goal?

One final note: it can be hard to eliminate time wasting activities if you aren’t sure what you are working toward. In my experience, there are two questions that can help clarify the entire process behind the Eisenhower Method.

Those two questions are…

  1. What am I working toward?
  2. What are the core values that drive my life?

These are questions that I have asked myself in my Annual Review and my Integrity Report. Answering these questions has helped me clarify the categories for certain tasks in my life. Deciding which tasks to do and which tasks to delete becomes much easier when you are clear about what is important to you.

The Eisenhower Method isn’t a perfect strategy, but I have found it to be a useful decision-making tool for increasing my productivity and eliminating the behaviors that take up mental energy, waste time, and rarely move me toward my goals. I hope you’ll find it useful too.

Sources
  1. Thanks to Brett McKay at The Art of Manliness for his post on the Eisenhower Box.
  2. I couldn’t find the original source for the quote, “No code is faster than no code.” If you know the answer, please let me know and I’ll update the article as needed.
  3. The term “highest and best use” is a real estate concept for finding the most valuable use of a piece of property. My friend Mark Heckmann is a fan of using the phrase for personal time management and I like it too. Thanks Mark!
  4. For other useful productivity tips, check out this article summarizing Scott Hansleman’s work.

68 Comments

    • This would have been a great help to me when I was working and keeping house, tending my children & husband, etc. It just seemed easier to do it myself than to get somebody else to do it, especially whenn they didn’t want to. In other words: it was less grief for me – just get it done and sleep when you have time! I realize now, actually before now but didn’t know any other way to handle it without becoming stressed. I am now a 70+ year old widow with grown children & grandchildren but still with a house, car, yard, etc to keep going and nobody to delegate those tasks to. So I just do what I can. I do realize that computers are time-wasters and don’t spent a lot of time, in fact, no time on socializing online. I had gotten on facebook to find friends in Tampa (my hometown) but now have their email addresses and no desire to chat about trivial stuff so I’m off now. I do travel some but still have so much to do when I return. But I really enjoy reading these articles and do pass along some of your ideas to my sons & their families. It’s too bad you have to get old to get smart! But keep’em coming. I do enjoy reading them and have made use of some of your advice. ie: changing habits from bad to good

    • Some things seem to be repetitive on your blog. Mind you, this isn`t completely bad. You do a very good job of extending principles and theories to multiple fields.

      E.g. The “no code” message is similar to the one you used in another article (I don’t remember exactly which one) in which you stated “to make your website faster, eliminate any peace of code that isn’t absolutely necessary.”

      There are other examples but the point is: While a lot of newcomers (myself included) will benefit from reading your earlier wisdom — since we arrived late, however some things will get repetitive after some time. Be careful not to overextend how many times can you say the same things in different words. Despite the criticism, I have been reading the blog for a few months now and trust me if there wasn’t some quality to it, I wouldn’t come back to it.

  1. I always got tensed choosing between multiple task to be performed at the same time and to choose which one to be done was a hell of task. Even after doing a particular task i was still unsure wether i had decided properly.

    I was looking forward to get help and your article came handy at the right time.

    I cam now grade the task on the basis of the mission and vision OR life purpose as others would call it helping to lead a purposeful.

    Thanks James.

  2. I like the simplicity of this very much. How would a person use this if you are frequently the one being “delegated to”?

    • I’m curious about that, too. Most people, especially women, cannot simply eliminate things that don’t follow their goals. And that’s because these tasks must be done and there truly is no one else to do them. Not to sound sexist, but that’s the sad truth.

      • I agree that simplicity makes this a very good time management tool. I grateful for my friend who taught it to me. I have used it for last 10 years with good success.

        For Melanie, if your boss delegates something to you, (in most cases) it’s urgent and important task. However, many tasks can be automated with right tools or removed by reorganizing work. Try suggesting your boss a way to automate these tasks to put your skills and time to better use. If you work in an area like retail where changes are not possible, then consider applying for a new job. It’s important to find meaning and enjoy your work.

        For Michele, I agree with you. There are some things that both men and women must do. In my opinion, this is not a sad truth but a reality. You can still make little changes every day to improve your life (like James Clear is suggesting in his articles).

    • I modify my use of the matrix such that the Important/Urgent box is for mission-critical items that I absolutely must complete today. The Important box, as in this use case, is for items that will advance my projects/goals at work or at home. The Urgent box is for things related to chores, organizing, paperwork, errands, and other things that definitely need to be done but perhaps don’t need a concerted “best effort.” I knock these things off in between meetings, while waiting for an experiment to finish in the lab, while waiting for something to finish cooking at home, if I happen to wake up early or leave work early, etc. It’s my list for after the really critical stuff gets done for the day. And I also use the “delete” box as my tickler file. I stash things here that I should do “someday” and scroll through it every now and again to see if there’s anything that ought to be promoted.

  3. Wow, what a powerful article I am struggling with time management. As of December 2013 I have become self-employed but also a stay at home Dad. More than ever I have to find ways to optimize my time more than ever before.

    • You need to hire a nanny. If I lived near you I would be a great one! Yes, even at my age. I am a very young 70!

  4. The “delegate” option for urgent but not important assumes you have a ready supply of underlings who can do the task for you. Sadly most of us are not presidents or generals so don’t have that luxury. Is the takeaway to find a way to do them with the minimal time and effort possible instead?

    • I have a friend who is disabled, but he can drive and likes to do landscape, lawn care, etc. He was happy when I called and asked if he’d be interested in helping me get my landscape ready. I can’t pay him much, but I’m able to delegate and satisfy the wife at the same time.

      My thoughts,
      Steve

  5. I’d used this method off and on over the years, but I never knew Eisenhower developed it. He got ‘er done, that’s for sure. Enjoy your newsletter immensely.

    Steve

  6. Wonderful article. Time management is very important in todays life and the Eisenhower method you have told is really great and easy to follow.

    I just want to add a small but important point is that sometimes in life things which are not urgent and seems not important are also required to enjoy the life. Like watching tv with your spouse and/or kids or sometime just sleep till late in the morning and skip the morning exercise schedule. They appear to be just waste of time but they indirectly boost your emotions, increase your energy levels.

  7. Love this info James and I always look forward to reading everything you send out. Just a question and it may sound stupid but for some time now I seems to be stuck. 25 yrs of reading self help books does not seem to help the fact that I seemed to have lost the plot some how some where along the way!! My question is really to myself – What is important? I used to think I knew but now nothing seems that important anymore. I have most worldly things I could ever need and a loving happy family that of course are important but they have their own lives and I see them as much as they are able. I have money and even though my health is not good I try to do most things. I can sell my Art and get Art jobs quite easily when I want them. My health is not that consistant that I can do a lot consistantly though. I am not able to fly anymore and long travel is out. I just can’t seem to get motivated to do much, so my question is always “What is important enough to accually do anything??” Sounds strange I know, I have done volounteer work when well enough and that is good as I like to help people but again not a consistant thing as it depends on the amount of energy I have. I would be grateful for your suggestions of just how to get that spark and enthusiasm back and to identify just what is important. Thank you.

  8. Each monday I use a full sheet of paper to create a 4 quadrant Eisenhower box for the week. This becomes the “flight plan” for the week. I make additions, cross off items, and move things as necessary as the week progresses.

  9. Great article James, Thank you for sharing.

    I feel in some small way we all do this, I have this habit of keeping my inbox absolutely clean, no mail is left unread at all. I only mark the ones which fall under “important but not urgent” as unread as reply to them later.

    However, I feel if we develop the habit of treating only the most important and most urgent things, we might overlook something which is not urgent or important now, but definitely has the potential to cause damage if left unattended.

  10. Great article James, Thank you for sharing.
    I feel in some small way we all do this, I have this habit of keeping my inbox absolutely clean, no mail is left unread at all. I only mark the ones which fall under ‘important but not urgent’ as unread as reply to them later.
    However, I feel if we develop the habit of treating only the most important and most urgent things, we might overlook something which is not urgent or important now, but definitely has the potential to cause damage if left unattended.

  11. Dear James:

    How about we improve Eisenhower’s Box?

    If you swap the NOT URGENT and URGENT headings, then the four subsections match those good old x-y graphs that we learnt at school.

    The DELETE is now down in the bottom lefthand corner: Near the zeros! The URGENT is now heading for the stars: Top right!

    I find this makes my actions more automatic: Leaving more time to head for those stars.

    Love, Jenni

  12. I’ve come across this before and although I think it’s excellent I fall down on the urgent but not important because I don’t have anyone to delegate to — I am my own admin support. This means the important but not urgent definitely suffers.

  13. Awesome! It is funny cause yesterday I was working organizing and making a real plan to achieve my goals for the year. I was starting to get stuck and feeling lost, with no clear vision. Now that I know what I want to accomplish for this year, I will create a program in Excel adding Eisenhower Box, I will create 3 different, one by day, week and month.

    By the way, I will create my fashion brand; I am just in the first step of the ladder, sometimes it is hard to keep the motivation when you are entrepreneur, but I actually feel most of the time happened when I lose the focus of where and what I want to be.

    Regards from Paris,
    Diana

    P.S. Your articles are included in my important to do list

  14. Loved the article. If life were only so simple. I need an assist to delegate to or be brave enough to ignore!

  15. I love your articles. Great insights, different perspectives, useful, helpful. Thanks a lot for taking the time to inspire me!

  16. Firtst of all, everything I do needs to be done… I don’t waste time and am efficient. However, I do categorize in what needs my attention now and what later. Always have. Otherwise I would go nuts if I didn’t have a plan and would absolutely forget something that is important.

    I have a full time job, a household, raised two kids on my on who are now going to college. I don’t procrastinate and I don’t waste time. Being well organized down to the littlest thing is key. Plus there is no one to delegate things to. My kids do their chores, but that is not delegating. That is a life lesson.

    So I do not agree that this theory applies to everyone. Because people will use it as an excuse: “Oh I don’t want to clean my house, because I feel it is not important, so I just won’t do it”. That is a lazy excuse. Just like exercising, eating right and taking care of the environment. People always have excuses. Even cooking a meal from scratch doesn’t take up that much time.

    Being a person of integrity is important. Your kids are important. Most people today would have more time if they stopped watching crappy TV programs, checking their phone all the time or posting on Twitter, Facebook etc.

    That in their world has priority. So important to one is not important to someone else. And still leaves people disorganized because they make bad choices.

    • Hi Jeannine,

      Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts! It’s great to have you reading. If you don’t think the Eisenhower Box is a good solution for making people aware of unproductive activities, do you have some suggestions that work better? I’m always on the lookout for new ideas. What worked well for you?

    • Jeannine, I think you misunderstand the concept. The Eisenhower Box provides a framework to categorize tasks, it doesn’t determine what is important, only the individual filling in the box can do that. What is important to me may not be important to you or James but that is why it is “my” Eisenhower Box. Like you said, cooking from scratch is important to you and time well spent, great, that would be an important thing to you and that is how you would categorize it. Again, it is a simple framework, not a “theory” like you suggest.

  17. I’ve been using the Eisenhower box religiously since I attended a 7 Habits of Highly Effective People workshop back in 1996. It’s never let me down, but I had no idea as to the origin. Thanks for enlightening me.

  18. Great article. I seldom delegate my tasks though. I tried several times before to delegate and slowly it became “managing people” which is one of the tasks I hate to do. Instead I replace that with “automate”.

  19. Thank you for making us discover that Eisenhower box. I am a procrastination specialist and need desperatly that kind of tools to make my life easier!

  20. Hi James, great post! Stephen Covey, author of “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” also says “The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.” I believe this is in line with what you are saying there, your priorities in life (i.e. what is essential and important) should get your attention first, and everything else should fit around it in decreasing order of importance.

  21. Thank you for this. I just found out I have ADD today and organization and planning is the highest score. My brother has been telling me to do exactly this for almost a year. Now I’m taking this very seriously and very much appreciate the guidance here.

  22. Thank you, thank you, thank you! This is just what I need. I am going to make a weekly “box for myself. Also the code analogy is spot on. In fact elimination of most things in my life is a major source of freedom for my goals to be accomplished. I also find the power of the word “NO” to be one of my best tools as of lately.

  23. Excellent article, James. I have been aware of this strategy since I read Stephen Covey’s “7 Habits” book about 25 years ago. I am surprised as Covery never mentioned Eisenhower, but it is clear to me that that’s where he got it from; maybe it is in the footnotes, but it was never in the text I read — and I read the book three times.

    But, I have two points of disagreement with you, James: You, unabashedly, say “Obviously, the Eisenhower Method isn’t a perfect strategy”

    I do not see that this is obvious. How do you say that? What makes this obvious?

    And, to wit, in my 25 years of using it, I have found no other method that is more perfect. If you have one, please let us know about it. Thanks so much for all your writing. I am still a big fan of James Clear; I am not perfect either.

    God Bless.

  24. This makes me think of Steven Covey and his “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” (and related empire). I wonder whether he cited Eisenhower. Thanks for the article.

  25. I’ve used that grid, though not as well as I should have, but never heard it called “The Eisenhower Box.” I am reading Steven Ambrose’s one-volume biography of Eisenhower—seeing that he was not only a clear-eyed leader, but he was also a leader who handled well his own mistakes, miscalculations, and occasional bad judgement calls. And it seems obvious, now that I know he conceived this grid, that he was guided by it. I’m not sure if most people know that Eisenhower did well at West Point, but was not a stand out. He was, however, a leader who considered himself a “coach.” When events began to propel him into higher level leadership, he was a major and expecting to retire in the fairly near future. I wonder if his astonishing rise would have happened had he not been disciplined by his own approach to time and resource management.

  26. Hi! James:

    Thank you very much for sharing your experience and knowledge, seems to me a wonderful mission. Your articles have been very useful for my life. I live in a Spanish speaking country, I translate your articles to share it with my family, I print to my grandmother, my mom and my brother who dont speak English, of course I always write your name as author in the text.

    I want to suggest you to open a section in several languages​​, I can bet you that many people who speak Spanish would be interested to follow your advice, like me!.

    So thanks for listen my idea, I hope you have a wonderful week.

    Anamá

    • Good work Anamá! I’m sure your family appreciates this!

      If you are already translating the articles, why not send them back to James and ask him to publish them.

  27. I’ve seen the Eisenhower box before — without knowing it was his idea. Good idea to fill the boxes with current to-do’s. I applaud your clarity in writing and thinking; it’s very thought provoking, informative and motivating.

  28. Hi James,

    I learned a similar concept from Tony Robbins “Time of Your Life” — maybe you should check this out. It uses the same dimensions “urgency” and “importance”. The main difference between the eisenhower box and the way I work now is that I focus on doing tasks that are important, but not urgent, because these are the task I really feel in the zone when I do them and I’m most productive with.

  29. Great job! So effective. You really are doing great. Not everyone on the productivity blogs is as good as you.

    Thank you!

  30. Hi All,

    I was just going to come here to post a similar question to some people in the group. Running my own business, I don’t have someone else to delegate tasks to as it’s only me currently. However, I just tried to write my own eisenhower box and in my Not Important, Urgent Box I wrote Answering Emails. At first I thought that there was no one else I could delegate this task to. Then I remembered that I had just contacted a wedding DJ because I am getting married and he had crafted some automatic responses to emails that he can send out to clients. Although it’s not exactly the same as delegating the task to someone else, I thought if I had automatic responses to send to my clients that would save me a lot of time in crafting emails which does take a lot of energy out of me and weigh on me in the mornings. If I can save time on that I have more time to work on other parts of business as well. Maybe we just have to get creative!

    Just my thoughts,

    Stephanie

  31. Hi, I recently signed up to get your emails and it has really helped me understand alot of things about my habits and personal goals. This one has especially helped me to create a new plan for myself to acheive what I’m working towards. I hadn’t known about this method until now and I think more people should learn about this to help them acheive their long-term goals as well. Out of curiosity though I would like to ask you one question: Where do you get your inspiration from?

  32. “Those two questions are…

    What am I working toward?
    What are the core values that drive my life?”

    These are the core points from the post. They are simple questions but most of us rarely ask them to ourselves.

  33. James,

    thank you for your consistency. I have been following you for about six months and your effort to not only consistently write but to consistently put forth worthy material is impressive. Thank you for your passion, I for one have benefited.

  34. An eye opener article. I’m guilty at always making myself ‘looks’ busy eventhough some things can really be omitted out so I can focus only at the important stuff. Thank you so much for this! Great article!

  35. Thanks James. I always had difficulties prioritizing, and as a result wasn’t always productive. The Eisenhower Box is a simple strategy anyone can use. Out of all the options, DELETE is the easiest for me. I am extremely selective when it comes to information. I only consume what makes me think, grow and change my mindset. I ask myself simple questions: “Do I really need to know that?”, “Will this information make me smarter?”. Works great!

  36. Hey James,

    I’m loving your emails and insights, but this one struck me as…essential. Something about the way Eisenhower lumps everything into just 4 broad categories is so old school and beautiful. The no-nonsense categorization without worrying about the minutiae of scheduling is so 1950s. Do it now, do it later, have someone else do it, or don’t do it. Zen.

    I do have one question, and I’m sure a lot of people have asked it:

    How do us regular folks without white house staffers “delegate?”

    What does that look like to the average Joe? Is it setting up automation for posts, and auto-pay for bills, etc.? Is there anyway to take delegation a little further? Because, for me it’s always the “not important, but urgent” tasks that bog me down.

    Thank James,

    Keep the posts coming.

  37. Started using the box this week, it has made all the difference!

    I can see what is urgent, etc., now I’m stress free. It is so simple, but effective.

  38. Killer post, James. The Eisenhower box / matrix is emerging as the central element of our new marketing plan. When we talk about “consistently doing what matters most”, people lock up.

    They know what matters most, but they don’t know what to consistently do. They also don’t know how to do those things consistently…which forms the basis for our whole value propsition.

    Showing the matrix and saying, “we help you develop quadrant 2 habits” somehow seems to make it more tangible.

    Love that Tim Ferriss quote about busyness, too.

    Keep it up!

  39. Awesome. Your articles are always useful to me. I’m indebted to you. Thank you so much. Dhayanithi, Coimbatore, Tamilnadu, India

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