Mental Models for Software Engineers: Improve Your Productivity by Using the Eisenhower matrix

One of the mental model that I find useful for prioritising my todo list is Eisenhower matrix named after US president Dwight D. Eisenhower. Dwight D. Eisenhower once said

I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.

Eisenhower matrix is a simple decision making tool for organising your tasks. You can use it to find the task you should act on first.

The way it works is by creating a 2×2 matrix. You divide your tasks into 4 quadrants.

  1. Urgent and important (tasks you need to do today)
  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)

I use it to plan my day. I first write down list of tasks that I think I need to do today. I don’t prioritise I just write them in a list. Then, I use Eisenhower Matrix to find out what I need to do today, what can I do later, what can I delegate, and what I can delete. This two step process help me focus on the right stuff.

Below is an example Eisenhower matrix for my today’s tasks.


The reason Eisenhower matrix works for me is that it help me distinguish between important and not important and urgent and not urgent. There are days when I want to learn a new topic when I should be really solving the problem customer is facing. I schedule time on weekend to learn on the new topic so that I can give complete focus to the problem at hand. In this way, Eisenhower matrix help me answer “Do I really need to work on this now?”. The worst thing we can do to ourself is working on something that was not the priority of the hour.

Eisenhower matrix is a useful tool that help me explain to other that all their requests are not urgent. If everything is urgent nothing is urgent. Many times if you go over this with your colleagues they will understand that everything they say is not important and urgent. Different tasks have different priorities and we should treat them like that.

There are two tricks that help me make Eisenhower matrix work for me.

  1. I set different things as my priority for different days. I keep weekends for my self-learning. So, tasks corresponding to them are more important those days. This way I am able to balance the work that matters and the work that makes me better.
  2. I align daily tasks to my higher level goals. I use OKR methodology to define objectives and key results for a quarter. Setting OKR keeps me focussed on my higher level goals. This makes it easy for me to decide if I should be doing something or deleting it for my todo list.

I find Eisenhower matrix useful strategy to decide what to work on. This reduces stress and helps improve my productivity.

You should also give it a try and see if it works for you.

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