- Eisenhower Matrix (PDF)
If you’re stuck in the middle of your PhD, it’s not because you haven’t been working hard. I suspect it’s because you’re busy with other stuff. It’s the difference between getting things done and getting the right things done. I’m not suggesting that your other activities aren’t necessary, rather that some of them need to temporarily take a back seat.
One of my favourite tools for reality checks is the Eisenhower Matrix, popularised by Stephen R. Covey. Here’s what it looks like:
Quadrant 1 — Urgent and important. Here’s where you’ll place those tasks with a terrifying deadline and also any unexpected emergencies, such as illnesses or broken boilers.
Quadrant 2 — Important but not urgent. This is the spot for tasks that are crucial to you but haven’t yet become stressful. You routinely feel in control of these activities. By keeping on top of them, you prevent bigger problems occurring in future.
Quadrant 3 — Urgent but not important. These are other people’s priorities. They’ve decided that you should do something urgently, but it’s not actually your priority. If you’re teaching, this could include unreasonable last-minute requests from students, e.g. “I need you to explain the Harvard citation style in the next 5 minutes.”
Quadrant 4 — Not urgent and not important. Why do we spend any time here at all? Well, usually it’s because we’re trying to avoid tasks in Quadrants 1 or 2. These often involve watching kitten videos on YouTube, faffing about on Twitter, or shopping for matching stationery.
Have a go at adding your own tasks to the quadrants. Use a big piece of paper so you have room to include everything.
When that’s done, reflect on the following points:
- How does stuff end up in Quadrant 1?
- How could you spend more time in Quadrant 2?
- How could you better manage the tasks in Quadrant 3?
- Can you stop (or at least limit) things in Quadrant 4?
When I use the matrix in workshops, attendees often put their writing in Quadrant 1. Although this sometimes happens despite our best efforts, your life will run more smoothly if you’re mainly inhabiting Quadrant 2. You’re working on important tasks, but they haven’t turned into mini-crises. The trouble with letting stuff slip into Quadrant 1 is that you have no wriggle room when disaster strikes, those emergencies demand your full attention. If you’ve left that writing deadline to the last possible moment and your boiler explodes, you have two emergencies on your hands. It’s much better to develop a steady writing schedule.
I also see people add exercise, cooking, and socialising to Quadrant 4. Your health absolutely belongs in Quadrant 2 — this includes both your mental and physical health. If either breaks down, you can’t easily fix it. Don’t let it become an emergency. Housework, on the other hand, definitely belongs in Quadrant 4.
The Eisenhower Matrix is an ongoing activity. You’ll need to revisit it at least weekly to reassess the situation and see what’s shifted. It might be necessary to reprioritise and use stricter criteria, especially if you’re up against a tight deadline. Ask yourself:
- What can I delegate/outsource? (this might include takeaways)
- What can I postpone?
- What can I drop?
The only way you’ll finish your thesis is by saying no to distractions and honouring commitments to yourself. It has to be your top priority, at least most of the time.
Learn to value your own time as highly as other people’s. If you say yes to something else, you’re saying no to your thesis. Only do so when it’s truly important. By protecting your Quadrant 2, you have the time, energy, and focus to manage your priorities.