The Eisenhower Matrix: A Tool to Help School Leaders Focus Their Time

Blog post Jon Schmidt-DavisSREB Senior Research Associate

The Eisenhower Matrix can help busy leaders make the most of their limited time to get things done. During World War II the matrix helped General Dwight Eisenhower plan and carry out the most complex military operation in history, the D-Day invasion of Normandy. He used it as a tool to ensure that he spent his time on the right work. The rules are simple: If a task is both urgent and important, do it now; if it’s important but not urgent, schedule a time and make sure it gets done; if it’s urgent but not important, delegate to a subordinate; and if it’s neither urgent nor important, eliminate it.

  Urgent Not Urgent
Important Do Schedule
Not Important Delegate Eliminate

How does this apply to school administration?

Important/Urgent. School administrators spend a lot of time as firefighters, addressing problems that need immediate responses, problems that if not handled quickly and well can bring serious consequences. The school may be out of compliance; there are safety or liability issues; the school’s reputation might be harmed. Successful administrators become good at handling these situations even when they are unexpected, exercising good judgment in identifying when something needs their immediate attention. This skill involves an element of common sense, but it improves with experience and quality mentoring.

Important/Not Urgent. Almost everything an administrator can do that will improve learning outcomes for students is in this quadrant. Communicating a positive and consistent vision for the school. Building relationships. Planning and delivering staff development. Making sure the school has effective professional learning communities. Observing instruction and providing feedback to teachers that will help them grow. While none of these are emergencies, they’re the only things that will help a school improve. To make sure they do, administrators need to schedule the tasks and protect that schedule.

Experienced administrators recognize the value of activities that set a tone, that help them keep a finger on the pulse of the school. These include being visible in the car lanes at drop-off and pick-up, making an appearance in the cafeteria, meeting students at the front door. Building these into routines makes an administrator accessible and build credibility. To an outsider who doesn’t understand schools, these activities might not look important, but they are. Finally, taking care of yourself belongs in this quadrant. An administrator’s physical, mental, and spiritual health, spending quality time with family — these too need to be protected.

Administrators have the same 24 hours a day that everyone else gets. The only way to spend more time on important tasks is to spend less time on others. That’s all there is.

Not Important/Urgent. Delegate these items. This quadrant is where an administrator can recover the most time to spend on important tasks. Barriers to delegation include lack of confidence in others and administrators’ desire to hold onto tasks they like to do.

You are in a leadership role because you’ve been effective. You can probably do a lot of things better than someone else in the school, but that doesn’t mean you should do them all. If it’s not important someone else can do it, and if they can’t yet, you can get them there.

Tips for Delegating Tasks1

  • Whenever possible, give the person the whole task to do. (Let them own it!)
  • Help them understand how it fits into the bigger picture.
  • Make sure they understand exactly what you want them to do.
  • If you can, share with them what it should look like when it’s done.
  • Be clear about when it needs to be done.
  • Determine in advance how you will know if it is successfully completed.
  • Determine in advance how you plan to thank them for completion.

Not Important/Not Urgent. So… why are you doing this, exactly? If you don’t have a good answer (“habit” doesn’t count), eliminate it.

1Susan Heathfield, May 9, 2019. “Delegation as a leadership style.”