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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Productivity

The Ultimate Makeover for Your To-Do List

I don’t know about you, but there’s nothing I love more than a good, clean, organized to-do list. A few easy things to check off in the morning, a few more difficult but satisfying tasks for the afternoon, and one or two bonus boxes for my most productive, vibing-with-the-universe days.

Unfortunately, that’s never what my to-do list actually looks like. My action items start with “what I need to do today” and end with “what I need to do with my life,” and include every little step I think I should take in between. There are circles, stars, doodles, and a variety of highlighter colors. To summarize: It’s chaos.

Determined to organize the noise, I researched a bunch of tools and resources to give my to-dos a little pre-spring cleaning. My favorite? The Eisenhower Method.

If you’re looking for better way to manage your to-do list, here’s how this simple—but effective!—tool works.

What is It?

The Eisenhower Method is an easy time management and prioritization tool that makes you ask two questions for every to-do action: Is it urgent? It is important? Dubbed after President Eisenhower, who was said to have used the method, the tool follows the thought process of his famous quote, “What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important,” and organizes your to-dos into four separate sections.

How Do I Use It?

First, grab your crazy-looking to-do list.

Next, grab a blank piece of paper and draw the following quadrant. (But leave out the text in the middle! That’s for you to fill in.)


Then, take every item listed on that chaotic piece of paper and place it into one of the four boxes. They should be labeled “Urgent and Important,” “Important But Not Urgent,” “Urgent But Not Important” and “Not Important or Urgent.”

What Goes Where?

Urgent and Important: Have a EOD deadline? That goes here. Did your website just crash? That would go here, too. Have a crying baby? That would also go in this box (although whether or not you want to write “deal with crying baby” as a to-do is up to you). This box is full of the daily fires you’re putting out. And unless you’re in crisis PR, you don’t want too much in this box. It means you’re spending more time being reactive and less time being proactive.

Important But Not Urgent: This box is where you should spend most of your time. It should include short and long-term goals, like networking, business planning, and exercising. Even though you’re labeling these activities as not urgent, it’s best to put a timeframe around each one so you’re sure to get them done.

Urgent But Not Important: This is a phone call in the middle of a meeting, or a full inbox of emails waiting for responses (despite not being all that important to your end goal). It’s the annoying things that pop up in the middle of the day that don’t move you forward all that much but can take up a ton of time. If you’re finding that a good amount of your tasks fall here, it’s time to build in systems to better protect yourself. For example, put an out of office up for the afternoon so people know you’ll respond later, and tell your mom not to call while you’re at work.

Not Important or Urgent: Then what are they doing on your to-do list? Seriously, if there are any tasks in this box, find a way to get rid of them. If you can’t get rid of them, delegate them. And if you can’t delegate them, compile them into groups of four or five (or 10) to tick off during a slow, snowy afternoon.

And for all of you tech junkies who have been hoarding to-do lists on your iPhone Notes and wondering how this will translate, fear not. There’s even an Eisenhower app.

Know of any other helpful time management or organization tools that get you through the day? Tell us about them!

Photo of to-do list courtesy of Shutterstock.