Using the Eisenhower Matrix for Task Planning in Academia?
Today I wanted to share a few reflections on the Eisenhower Matrix and whether I think it’s a useful planning tool for Academia (short answer: not really!).
Desperate times for productivity in 2020
As you might know, in order to keep me motivated during our beloved Covid year 2020 (and the final phase of my dissertation..), I have created a few goal planning and progress tracking templates. I’ve tried different productivity planners and methods (such as the High Performance Planner and Bullet Journaling inspired stuff) as well as created the #100DaysofDH challenge to motivate me (hint: didn’t really work :D) and many goal-planning and habit-tracking LaTeX templates and all sorts of desperate shit like that 😀
Well, at least it has produced some insights that I can now share with you guys.
Evaluating the usefulness of the Eisenhower Matrix: Is the Eisenhower Matrix useful for productivity planning in Academia?
So today, I wanted to share insights on the productivity, prioritization and task planning method called the “Eisenhower Matrix”. That means you divide your tasks into “urgent & important = Do it now”, “important but not urgent = Plan”, “Urgent & not important = Delegate” and “neither urgent nor important = Delete”. I’ve filled this thing out every week and will now remove it from my weekly planning template today (will share all the templates at some point in the future, once they’re somewhat improved). I’m feeling kind of sad and guilty about this because I really wanted this to work. I find the idea of the Eisenhower Matrix incredibly appealing. Still, it didn’t work for me and I suspect that it’s just not fit for Academia in general. It’s probably a great tool for CEOs (so maybe if you’re organizing lots of things and have some employees to command around, it might work for you). Otherwise, let me sum up why I think it doesn’t work.
How the Matrix didn’t work work for me
Important but not urgent (=plan?): Well, to be honest, this is the same every week. It’s my PhD thesis. And the fact that I have noted it down in this section also doesn’t help me actually work on it. So this area has been turned into a “Remember” field where I write down stuff that’s kind of important, so I shouldn’t forget it but don’t have time for it now. Ergo a big indicator for this tool not working for me is that I stopped filling it out altogether and put different info in the fields it offered as to use the space it takes up on my weekly sheet more efficiently. Also, does plan mean “some time in the future” or like “set up a timebox / clear a spot in your calendar to get this done”? So more like “schedule”? Because otherwise, my dissertation would never get done 😀 Maybe I’m not understanding this right but I feel like the method is more focused towards the urgent tasks. Something that’s not directly urgent at all but the very most important thing to you ever isn’t really what this seems to have been made for.
Neither urgent nor important = “Delete” tasks. There are many tasks I know to be neither urgent or important and I even want to delete them. But I can’t due to social pressure or because they are favours called in by an important person. So yeah, this might work if you have enough power to get away with ignoring people’s requests – but I can’t. Thus, this field remained empty almost all the time. Pretty much a waste of space, if you ask me.
Urgent but not imporant = “Delegate” tasks. Let me tell you one thing. I would be more than happy to delegate tasks. And I also know which ones I could in fact delegate. But I very seldom find a person I can delegate something to. Maybe should our project go through (grant proposal submitted for next year), then I’ll have something to put in this field but as of now, I don’t have much. It takes up too much space every week. That’s why I had already reduced the space for “delete” and “delegate” tasks but the fields still take up lots of space on my weekly spread that I’m not really using very well.
Do it now (urgent & important). Since we Academics are in a constant state of being late and panicked about missed deadlines, litterally all my tasks would fit into this. Maybe I should call it “Should have been done by last week, so move your ass”-tasklist. But yeah, anyway, not a really useful field for me either. Especially as it forms a duplications with my little bullet lists (see image below), in the field of “Guilt (Hour) / Urgent (Tasks)”, so usually I found myself either copying down the text a second time (pointless and also confusing?) or leaving the field empty. So maybe Mr. Eisenhower’s method just wasn’t for me.
What I will do instead
So what will I do now? I think I will remove the template and replace it with, for example, a little “Remember” area where I can write down stuff that might have been in the “delete” area or also in the “plan” area. For the “delete” tasks, by the way, I have found that a useful strategy is to write it down in my calender in two months time. If the person whose request it was has forgotten it by then or it has become irrelevant, you will have no problem crossing it out then. Otherwise it’s not forgotten and you can re-evalute. I’ve found that this tends to work with requests that you don’t want to do and you don’t really have a deadline either and the person asking can’t really force you to do it except for using social pressure. Waiting for a while usually helps me build up the courage to say no (of course, don’t leave them hanging for ages if they really need this from you!). Or, often it has already happened that tasks became irrelevant or solved themselves in the meantime.
On the positive side, I’ve tried a few different things of which many have actually worked really well for me. This most importantly includes using some elements from bullet journaling. I’ll write about that later. But until then, see an example below: The 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 goal planning method.
So yeah, this was me grappling with the Eisenhower Matrix. Do you find these posts on productivity experiments useful and would you like to see more of them? I’ll probably make more anyway but it would be interesting to hear from you!
In the end, the Eisenhower Matrix wasn’t for me and I suspect it isn’t great for Academia in general. Probably my biggest issue with the method in general is that it’s a great way for categorizing your tasks (and maybe prioritizing in the sense of weeding out useless stuff, if possible). But it neither helps you order which of the important tasks to do first (or when to do it) nor does it help you with executing those priorities. Maybe it would work better for me to fill out the Eisenhower Matrix once per month and find a way of optimizing actual execution of those tasks on a weekly level.
But maybe you have different experiences? Have you used the Eisenhower Matrix as a productivity tool and has it worked for you? I’ll still include it on some template if you want it as a printout 😉