Weekend Edition – Accomplishing Your Writing Goals with the Eisenhower Decision Matrix

How’re you doing with those writing goals?

It’s almost the end of January. Can you believe it? The first thirty days of 2016 are behind us – whoosh! – just like that. Only 335 days left until we’re perched on the edge of yet another New Year. I’d hate for you to be standing there on December 31st – with your party hat and your champagne – lamenting all the writing you didn’t do.  (I’ve been there and done that more times than I care to admit. Makes for a less-than-sparkly New Year’s Eve.)

Regrets are not fun. Regrets are vicious little demons that gnaw on your heart late at night when you’re all alone with your thoughts. They delight in the excruciating replay of all the moments when you coulda-shoulda-woulda, but didn’t. A poignant video produced by Strayer University brings this point home with an interactive art piece that  invited New Yorkers to write their biggest regrets on a blackboard hung in the street. The regrets were diverse, but there was a common thread running through all of them:

Makes you think, right?

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It’s hard to avoid regrets. I’m not just talking about the fear factor. You and I both know that our fears hold us back. We fear failure and success, ridicule, discomfort, sacrifice, loss … you name it. Fears are big and loud and obvious. Even when we don’t talk about them, we know what they are. Theirs is a frontal attack. Straight-on. I’m not saying it’s easy to overcome your fears. They were born in deep, dark places in our psyches and have a strong hold there; but we can recognize and name them, and – once named – we can overcome them.

There are other, more subtle and insidious forces that keep you from reaching your goals. They wear disguises and tell lies. They whisper sweetly in your ear and make promises they never intend to keep. They cast spells that warp your perceptions so you’re easily led off your chosen path. If you let them, these time eaters will chew up your whole life minute by minute, and lick their fingers when they’re done. It’s not a pretty picture, is it?

But, there is hope. You just have to learn how to see past their deceptions and resist their siren call. You have to keep your eye on the prize and your feet on the path of your true quest.

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And so, we come to the down-and-dirty, nitty-gritty, in-the-trenches work that you must do. It’s not sexy. It’s not grand. It’s just a daily practice of making Right Decisions based on your True Priorities. It’s about becoming more aware of and proactive about the Small Choices you make, because it’s those moments that make or break your Big Dreams. You’ve heard there’s no such thing as an overnight success. This is true. Success never comes in one fell swoop. It’s the result of thousands and thousands of small, seemingly insignificant steps in the right direction. Again – not sexy, but it works.

So, where to start? How about with President Eisenhower?

Trust me. It’ll make sense.

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Though I didn’t know it at the time, I first encountered the “Eisenhower Decision Matrix” back in the 90s when the company I worked for offered a Franklin Covey training. (I did warn you this wasn’t sexy.) The Covey training was my initial exposure to a time management/goal planning/priority defining method and I fell hook, line, and sinker. I’ve since transitioned from a To Do list approach to calendaring, but I’m realizing that the Eisenhower Decision Matrix that Covey co-opted is a missing piece in my time management puzzle.

While my calendaring method does an excellent job of organizing my days around immediate tasks, it’s not so great at helping me wrangle the Big Picture planning (and doing!) that I need to tackle in order to create and maintain momentum on my Big Goals. Calendaring helps me survive the daily chaos of my life, but it doesn’t help me create the life I ultimately want. Using calendaring, I get lots of gold stars for getting things done, but too often the end of the day proves that those stars are made of faerie gold that can’t be traded for what I really want.

Do you ever fall into this trap? If you do, don’t feel bad. We all do it. And, here’s where the Eisenhower Decision Matrix comes in.

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The Eisenhower Decision Matrix helps you identify and prioritize what’s most important AND what’s least important so you can make your daily choices accordingly. The matrix consists of a four-quadrant grid that categorizes activities based on how important and urgent they are:

EisenhowerMatrix Categories

I borrowed this set of category labels from a post on The Art of Manliness. Even if you only take a quick glance, you can probably guess that you should be spending most of your time in the top two quadrants and as little time as possible in the bottom two. Applying broad brushstrokes:

  • Quadrant 1- More Important and Urgent – represents the daily tasks that we must do in order to survive. It’s primarily about being responsive and gaining an immediate payoff. It’s all the “Must Do” items on your list – obligations and responsibilities that can’t be avoided: crises, problems, deadlines.
  • Quadrant 2- More Important and Less Urgent – represents the activities that will help us thrive (and reach our True Goals). It’s primarily about being proactive in order to attain a long-term goal. These are the activities that don’t offer immediate reward, but which you must do in order to achieve your Big Goals: relationships, planning, recreation. (Yes, recreation is important – especially to the creative soul.)

The lower two quadrants are the cracks through which those sneaky little time eaters creep into our days:

  • Quadrant 3 – Less Important, but still Urgent – represents all those things that tug on your attention, but don’t move you any closer to your Big Goals. They often feel important and like something you can’t avoid, but that’s why they are so damn tricky. This quadrant includes the favors people ask you for, social obligations, and every time you say “yes” out of guilt.  It also includes faux productive activities like overlong meetings, endless email threads, and mindless documentation that nobody ever reads.
  • Quadrant 4 – Less Important and Less Urgent – represents mostly pointless, “time suck” activities that you could really live without. These activities are like the junk food of your intellect. They are the rabbit holes that you fall into, losing hours of your day as though you’d been enchanted by faeries. It’s important to note that these activities are not always intrinsically evil. I like to veg out to a favorite guilty pleasure TV show as much as the next person, and I may or may not spend more than an appropriate amount of time on social media sites. That’s okay. All things in moderation.

Let’s look at an example set of tasks and activities:

EisenhowerMatrix Generic

  • Quadrant 1 – The Things You Need to Deal With Right Now: Obviously, each of these examples is something you have to address immediately. Whether the item is a crisis (like a lost child), a problem (like a broken down car that’s keeping you from getting to work or whatever), or a non-negotiable and time-sensitive obligation  (like paying your taxes), these are all things that you can’t ignore. They go on the To Do list no matter what.
  • Quadrant 2 – The Things You Don’t Have to Do Right Now, But Which You’d Better Do If You Ever Want to Achieve Your True Goals:  Here’s where things get a little slippery. These are the responsible, good-for-you things that you know you should do and you’ve really been meaning to do, but that you mostly let slide to the bottom of the To Do list because no one is making you do them. You know you should exercise in order to ensure long-term flexibility, fitness, and health; but you just don’t have time today. (There’s always tomorrow, right?)  It’s also important to note that most of the things in this quadrant aren’t things you can just check off the list. They are more process- than task-oriented. They involve creating and maintaining an on-going practice. For this reason, we often find ourselves in that unpleasant place of regret where we lament having waited so long to start something.
  • Quadrant 3 – The Things Other People and Cultural Norms Will Tell You Are Super Important Even Though They Have Nothing To Do With Your True Goals: This is another trap. These activities make us feel productive, important, responsible, even noble. We feel good about doing them, righteous, even. They let us check things off The List. They make us look good in the eyes of other people. They earn us brownie points. Sadly, they most often serve Other People’s Agendas, not our own. The standing advice for dealing with things in this category is to say “no” to as many of these tasks as possible and delegate the rest. Easier said than done, but even just being able to recognize these time wasters for what they are is a valuable start.
  • Quadrant 4 – The Black Hole of Time: Yep – this is where dreams come to die. Think of this quadrant as the opium den of your True Goals. It preys on their weaknesses and lures them into a smoky room that incapacitates them, at least temporarily. Steer clear as much as possible. And if you must take a hit, do it in a safe way. Resist the urge until you’ve accomplished your Quadrant 1 and Quadrant 2 tasks. Set time limits. Give yourself a goal for the activity and quit when you’ve accomplished that goal.

So, how might you organize your writing tasks in the matrix?

EisenhowerMatrix Writing

  • Quadrant 1: Finishing client work, sending in submissions, hitting your daily word count – these are all things you’ve got to get done. They are the bread-and-butter tasks that make up your daily rounds.
  • Quadrant 2: No one’s holding a gun to your head to get these things done, but it’s important to your long-term goals to do things like build your audience (maybe blogging more consistently, starting an email newsletter, etc.), work on your craft (take a class, read a craft book, etc.), and take time to work on your Big Picture plans.
  • Quadrant 3: Sure, it’s nice to help out where you can, and there’s some value in participating in networking events and social media; BUT … keep a close eye on whether these activities are truly moving you towards your True Goals, or maybe just making you feel busy/important/productive. It can be deceptive. Pay attention. Don’t be fooled.
  • Quadrant 4: The occasional Netflix binge is not a bad thing, but a weekly immersion in forty-five episodes of some show is not a healthy habit (especially for a writer).  Research for your story or other project is a necessary part of the process, but – admit it – sometimes you take the exercise WAY farther than you have to. (That’s called avoidance or Resistance.) And reading reviews of your work on Amazon or wherever – do I even need to tell you that’s a bad idea?

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I realize this post has been repetitive. I did that intentionally because sometimes the only way to grasp a thing is to look at it again and again and again until it finally sinks in. (At least, that’s been my experience. No offense if you’re a quicker study than I am.)

The thing is that although the concept of the Eisenhower Decision Matrix is simple, it’s not easy to implement. You have to be really honest with yourself about how you spend your time and whether or not each task is a Right Choice for you. You have to make hard decisions and sacrifices. You have to cut out activities that might bring you comfort and a false sense of security. You have to push yourself to do the harder things that you know will ultimately get you where you want to go. And this isn’t something that’s ever “done.” You need to be constantly checking in with yourself and realigning your choices with your True Goals.

Keep your eye on the prize. Don’t be like the adorable but misguided dog from “Up.” (Squirrel!) Figure out where you want to go, what it’ll take to get there, and then prioritize your day around that. Outsmart those deceptive forces that would lead you astray. Put up a magic forcefield to keep out distractions. You know where you want to go, and you can get there – one step (one small decision) at a time. Choose wisely.

Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content marketer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian and aerial arts (not at the same time), and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Introduce yourself on Facebooktwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.

33 thoughts on “Weekend Edition – Accomplishing Your Writing Goals with the Eisenhower Decision Matrix

    • I see your logic, Andrew. That sounds both Important and Urgent to me. 😉
      In my world, I’m pretty flexible with quadrant assignments … and a certain task might be in this quadrant one week and another quadrant the next. Eisenhower’s system is a good starting point – a rule of thumb, if you will – but everything (especially creative work) has its ebb and flow.

      Hope you enjoyed your Starbucks!

      • I like that idea – that tasks can be moved from one quadrant to the other so that you can remain flexible and the system serves you instead of it becoming like a straitjacket. Thank you Jamie.

  1. Great read! With other work (job) going on, it can be a little tough filling in the other “squares”. Thank you for sharing!

    • Thanks! I’m glad you enjoyed it.
      It is tough to tear ourselves away from Quadrant 1 in order to invest some time in Quadrant 2. There are always SO many things vying for/demanding our attention. I’m finding that just being aware of the difference between the two is helpful. It makes me think more carefully about decisions. For instance, if I’m keeping the matrix in mind, I’ll choose to read instead of watching TV at night. It’s a small thing in the moment, but over the course of a year (or a lifetime!), it makes a big difference.

      Good luck!

  2. I love this! I made myself an editorial calendar for blogging when I realized it was starting to gobble up much of my novel writing and research time (real research, not just randomly surfing the Internet!) It’s made a big difference. This is another great tool! Thanks, Jamie! Have a great weekend!

      • Sure, I plan ahead what I want to write for my blog. I don’t post randomly, rather I have 3 weekly featured posts, one personal/humorous, another about working out the issues of writing a novel and the 3rd is a piece of short fiction. I rarely post more than that. Your followers will be able to “tune in” for the features they enjoy. I plan a month of posts in advance and that way I’m not scrambling for ideas at the last minute. The calendar also prevents me from carving out the time I want to spend actually working on my current project.

      • I try to post just once a week, but I’m often scrambling (or have to skip a post). Inspiration and time are pretty random, so something like this could probably help both quality and focus. Thank you!

    • Thanks, Meg. I’m so glad you enjoyed the post, and thanks also for sharing your experience with editorial calendars. That’s another great tool & topic. My blogging workflow is a work in progress (despite the fact that I’ve been doing this for almost a decade!). I’m going to make 2016 the year that I get ahead of things so that I’m not always writing & posting on the same day. (Though, there is something to be said for the immediacy of that approach.)

      Thanks again!

  3. Pingback: Weekend Edition – Accomplishing Your Writing Goals with the Eisenhower Decision Matrix | MadeleineMaya

  4. Jamie, I love your posts. Apart from them being a pleasure to read, I find they are always so helpful and offer practical solutions. This is excellent! I’ve come across the quadrant time-management concept before but didn’t fully understand how to apply it (silly as it may sound). Your explanation on how to categorize them in accordance with goals that move you forward towards long-term dreams is very clear. Thank you.

    • Thanks so much. 🙂 The Eisenhower Decision Matrix is definitely one of those concepts that seems super simple on the surface, but can be quite powerful if you dig down and put it to your own best use. It actually took me quite a while to wrestle my thoughts about it onto the screen, so I’m glad you found it helpful and not tedious.

      Thanks, as always, for being here & for taking the time to comment. Have a great week!

  5. Thanks for this great post! This is something I need to be hit over the head with on a regular basis, so I totally understand why you take it slow and repeat it. I’ll probably need to re-read it again in another week (or less, gulp) when I find myself spending waaaaay too much time on Facebook some morning when I actually have a pile of “important and urgent” things I really need to deal with.

    • It’s definitely a “practice,” not a quick fix. 😉
      Believe me – you’re not alone when it comes to having to revisit the concept multiple times. It takes time to make something like this a natural part of your life. And I’m going to guess that the “system” will never be perfect, because life is never perfect. Some days will be better than others, and that’s okay!

      Thanks for coming by. Have a great week!

  6. I did not know it was the Eisenhowr quadrant but I have used this matrix to good effect in workplace coaching, especially when I was acting as a writing coach. In busy academic life finding time to write was often the last on anyone’s list of rio rites. But of course this meant that writing got out in 2nd or 3rd place always. Looking at the important but not urgent cell, where professional development and writing often sit was helpful.
    Good post

    • Thanks, Caroline. This approach is most often used in business settings, but I think it also has many personal and creative applications. It’s all about taking that Big Picture perspective and not allowing ourselves to get lost in the weeds, so to speak. 😉

      Thanks for coming by!

    • Thanks, Jessica. I’m so glad you found it helpful. Love the idea of putting a “stickies grid” on the wall next to your desk – that’s an awesome way to put this approach into action in a very personalized and tactical way. Good luck!

  7. This is awesome. I’m such a scatterbrain with these whacky Type A personality tendencies so the calendar method has been a bit of a struggle. ESPECIALLY when unimportant tasks seem to take up all the time I had planned for more important things lol

  8. Jamie i guess today i have read quite a number of your articles, i first learnt of this matrix from my mentor while i was in my second year in University back in 2011, but i dint know its name which courtesy of you i now know, However, back then I never took keen interest. Today, learning a bout has given me new impetus especially on my writing goals. I will try to implement what is written here.

  9. Pingback: Weekend Edition – Accomplishing Your Writing Goals with the Eisenhower Decision Matrix | Slattery's Art of Horror Magazine

  10. Hi Jamie,
    I know this is an old post, but I think it is relevant to my question. (If it is not… well… I’m going to ask it here anyway.) How do you know when to turn down work? Have you ever needed to turn down work due to time constraints, difficult clients or for whatever reasons that may make you rethink the acceptance of a contract?

    (I don’t know if this subject has already been dealt with within your group. If it has, perhaps you could just direct me to the link.)


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