Clear your mind, structure your day and make more time for the things that really matter with the revisited Eisenhower method.
As a PhD candidate, you often have to work on multiple projects at the same time. Preparing the next paper draft, doing literature research, giving talks, designing posters – It is easy to be overwhelmed with all these responsibilities, especially when you have the feeling they all need to be done right away.
A handy strategy to clear your mind and sort your tasks is the Eisenhower method, or better, a PhD reality-adapted version of it. I learned this method from PhD trainer Rob Thompson and tweaked it with my own additions throughout the years. Up to today, I use it to sort my week when I feel lost between deadlines and responsibilities.
The Eisenhower method is named after Dwight Eisenhower, US president from 1953 to 1961, on the basis of this quote:
“I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent. Now this, I think, represents a dilemma of modern man.”Dwight Eisenhower, 1954
Eisenhower did not claim this insight for himself, but attributed it to a former (unnamed) US president. The takeaway: If you keep doing only the most urgent tasks, the really important things will never get done.
Inspired by his words, the “Eisenhower method” for efficient time management was developed. The principle is simple: You prioritize your tasks with the help of a 2×2 matrix, depending on how important and how urgent they are. You end up with four categories: Important and urgent (A)/ Important, but not urgent (B)/ Not important, but urgent (C)/ Not important and not urgent (D).
Why traditional Eisenhower does not work
So far, so good. Sorting into the matrix is an easy and headache-free way to prioritize your tasks. The problem with the traditional Eisenhower method are the recommendations on what to do next. The method recommends you to take care of tasks in category A (important and urgent) right away, to schedule tasks in category B (important, but not urgent) for later, to delegate tasks in category C (not important, but urgent), and to ignore tasks in category D (neither important nor urgent).
In a perfect world, your time management problems are solved. In the real world, however, you keep working on category A, which immediately fills up again with incoming urgent and important tasks. You postpone important (but not urgent) tasks while you stress out about the latest deadlines. This is a real problem, since many important tasks do not have clear deadlines. Things like learning new skills, doing literature research, or taking time for yourself fall through the cracks, while they are actually the most important ones – those that make you grow.
So what to do? We keep prioritizing with the matrix, but change the way we deal with the different categories. With the revisited Eisenhower method, each category gets its own time slot during the workday.
I find it most helpful to set up my matrix once a week. All you need to implement the method is one hour to clear your mind and sort your tasks.
Here is how it works.
Step 1: Clear your mind with a brain dump
To get started, sit down in front of a blank piece of paper and jot down everything you have on your mind. Make sure to collect every task you have to do in the office, in the lab, or at home – no matter how big or small. Apart from solid tasks, also write down ideas or questions that come to your mind. The goal is to collect all your tasks on a single piece of paper, so that you can focus on structuring them in the next step.
Step 2: Sort your tasks
Review your list, identify tasks and sort them one by one into the matrix, according to how important and urgent they are to you. It is up to you whether you want to include personal tasks or only structure your work responsibilities.You may want to keep a separate list of everything you don’t include as a reminder.
If you come across a bullet point for which the next task is not entirely clear, identify what would be the next step for this particular project and proceed with this.
If multiple tasks belong to one bigger project, you may find it helpful to put the name of your project instead of the individual steps. Differentiate projects from single tasks by circling them.
Step 3: Use your matrix throughout the day
Not important and not urgent tasks (D)
Tasks that are neither important nor urgent are – well – not necessary to do right now. Great. Delegate these tasks (if you can) or simply ignore them for now. You will deal with them when they become more urgent or more important in the future.
Important, but not urgent tasks (B)
These are the tasks we usually postpone, because they don’t have clear deadlines. Unfortunately, they are also the most important – because they make us grow in the long term. Dedicate one or two hours early in the day to them, when your mind is rested and susceptible to new ideas. There is no need to complete anything during on of these daily slots. Working on these tasks regularly will bring you forward in the long run and make you feel good about yourself, because you are tackling the things that really count.
Important and urgent tasks (A)
These are important tasks with approaching deadlines. Focus on them for a large portion of the day after working on the important/not urgent section.
Urgent, but not important tasks (C)
Everything in this category may be done towards the end of your working day. At this point, you might be tired and not as sharp anymore, but you don’t need to be: these tasks are not that important anyway.
Use the revisited Eisenhower your way
Keep your matrix in a place where you can see it throughout the workday. Intuitively decide which tasks of which category are important to tackle on a particular day. If new tasks arise that can’t wait for next week’s sorting round, add them to the current matrix. Don’t feel guilty about not being able to complete every task you had to do. What cannot be done in a week you simply shift to next week’s matrix.
Structuring your workday in this way will help you get forward not only with the important tasks, but with your PhD as a whole. Instead of ignoring non-urgent tasks, you will work on each subject every week and soon realize that you are making progress – in smaller steps, but in a more wholesome way.
To get started, use the free Eisenhower template we created for you – download it here!
Did you try the revisited Eisenhower method for yourself? Does it work for you? Are there other tools you use to keep your to-dos in order? Share your insights in the comments!