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The Eisenhower principle will boost your productivity at work – here’s how to use it

The Eisenhower principle is a simple method to help you prioritise and become more productive at work. Here is a productivity coach’s guide to applying the method.

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Ticking tasks off a to-do list can be a satisfying act, but looking at a long list of things you need to do first thing in the morning is often daunting and it can also be frustrating when you get to the end of the day and crucial tasks haven’t been ticked off your list. Being productive at work is something so many of us strive towards, but it often feels like a losing game, always having to sacrifice tasks for others and letting other people’s needs come before your own.

Figuring out what is really going to help make you productive is the first step to dealing with this issue, especially if you are feeling overwhelmed at work. “When people are overwhelmed, they often have too much going on in their head, which means they can’t prioritise and delegate properly,” says Karen Eyre-White, a productivity coach who helps people deal with stress at work.

To help clients to feel more organised and on top of their work lives, she uses the Eisenhower principle to help them understand what it is that makes them feel productive. “This technique is designed for people who have too much to do and don’t know where to start,” she explains.

The method was invented by Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th president of the United States, in order to help him prioritise important tasks, by defining tasks as ‘important’ and/or ‘urgent’ in order to figure out which order to tackle them in.

Here, Karen shares her guide to using this principle to structure your time at work. 

How to get started with the Eisenhower principle 

The Eisenhower method encourages you to classify tasks on your to-do list as ‘important’ or ‘not important’ and ‘urgent’ or ‘non-urgent’.

Before you start categorising, Karen suggests writing a standard to-do list, writing down any tasks that you want to get done within a particular time frame. This might be a day, a week or a month, depending on how you work and what is causing you stress.

“Write down between 10 and 20 things and then create a grid with four sections,” Karen advises. The top left box of your grid will be for urgent and important tasks, the top right will be for non-urgent and important tasks, the bottom left will be for non-important and urgent tasks and the bottom right grid will be for tasks that are neither urgent nor important. 

How to categorise each task

It can be difficult to decide which tasks are urgent and important so Karen says before you do so you should define these terms for yourself.

“When it comes to urgency, our natural instinct is to overestimate when things need to be done by,” Karen says, explaining that some tasks might not be as urgent as you think. “What does urgent mean to you? Is it something you need to do today, tomorrow, this week? Give it your own personal meaning,” she adds.

“In terms of importance, think about what really adds value in your role,” Karen says. “What’s being asked of you in your job role, either by yourself or your organisation? These are the important things.”

Karen says that if you’re really struggling to define what’s important, you should write a list of what she describes as success objectives. “Ask yourself, if you were doing your job really well, what would you be doing? Any thing on your list that is in alignment with these things is something that should be important to you,” she says. 

How to apply the Eisenhower principle at work 

Once you have filled in your grid, you can use this to plan your day (or week, depending on how much you have included in your grid) at work. “Prioritise tasks that are important and urgent,” Karen advises.

“If you have marked tasks as important but not urgent, these are probably things that you won’t get round to doing very quickly, as it’s likely that no one is holding you accountable for them,” Karen says. “Set yourself deadlines to do these tasks and try to involve other people in these deadlines, if possible, as this will make you more likely to stick to them.”

Karen explains that you should try and delegate tasks that are urgent but not important to other people or, in future, consider if tasks like these are something you can turn down. “Often tasks that fall into this category are other people’s priorities, rather than your own,” she adds.

Finally, the tasks that are neither urgent nor important are probably things that you can remove from your to-do list, according to Karen, or, at the very least, do not prioritise these tasks.

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How to use the Eisenhower principle day-to-day      

You shouldn’t use the Eisenhower principle as a replacement for a to-do list, according to Karen. Instead, it’s something you can use either weekly, fortnightly or monthly, to make sure your priorities are in check and to help you learn to balance your workload.

“You should also look back on your grids, as you might realise that tasks you thought were important actually weren’t or vice versa,” Karen says. This will not only help you understand your job better, but learn to manage your tasks more effectively too. 

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  • Karen Eyre-White, productivity coach

    Karen Eyre-White, productivity coach
    Karen uses the Eisenhower principle to help her clients.

    Karen is the founder of Go Do, a productivity business which helps busy, overwhelmed people be more productive. Through 1:1 and group coaching, Go Do helps people to escape overwhelm and get back in control of their workload. 

Images: Karen Eyre-White and Getty