The Eisenhower Matrix According To Your Brain

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio

Lots of time management experts say that you should focus on tasks that are important but not urgent, because that’s the stuff that helps you make progress in your small business.

But they rarely address why those types of tasks are challenging to follow through on to begin with — even if you’ve blocked out time for them.

This can lead you to feel deflated and disappointed if the advice “just give yourself a kick in the butt and do it” doesn’t work.

It can feel extra frustrating, if you’re the kind of person who usually gets things done — Why the heck is it so hard to do these important things I’ve put on my calendar????

It’s not your fault that it’s hard to focus on the most impactful tasks and projects in your business

Many of the loudest voices in the online business world say things like you’re self-sabotaging when you procrastinate by doing minor tasks, or that you don’t actually *truuuly* want success because you’re not prioritizing the tasks that would make an impact in your business.

But I’m here to tell you that you’re not sabotaging anything — because it’s not your fault that this is happening.

So let’s talk about *why* it feels so challenging, or sometimes nearly impossible, to actually do the impactful tasks that you’ve planned to do. Because I believe that once you know why it feels hard, you can stop being hard on yourself, and instead you can focus on what will be helpful.

A quick recap of the Eisenhower Matrix

In the Eisenhower Matrix, tasks are divided into four quadrants based on importance and urgency. We have tasks that are

  • urgent, and important (do now)
  • urgent, but not important (delegate)
  • not urgent, not important (delete)
  • not urgent, but important (decide when you’ll do it)

The common consensus is that once you organize tasks by urgency and importance, you can prioritize your most important work more effectively.

But as you’ve probably already experienced, just because you know what you “should” or want to focus on, it isn’t always easy to follow through on those tasks.

That’s because of your brain.

Importance and urgency according to your brain

When we think about how the brain and the nervous system are built, it’s not too hard to see that we’re wired to do things that either give us quick easy rewards, or help us avoid immediate negative consequences.

Some newer psychological theories also emphasize that even pleasure-seeking behavior, aka looking for quick easy rewards, is just another way to avoid negative experiences. For example, we might grab some sugary snacks to feel less tired, or we scroll Instagram to not feel bored.

This means that what you consider important or urgent, like growing your business or taking care of your health, is not the same as what your brain considers to be important or urgent. The brain does not care that much about our modern aspirations of success or improved health down the line, especially if the activities that get you there require conscious effort.

Again, your brain prefers to do things that take minimum effort *or* that help you avoid a negative consequence.

When your brain senses that there’s something that needs to be done *right now*, it already mobilizes everything in your body towards taking action and creates that sense of urgency. It takes some effort to stop fulfilling that action and instead do something that’s important to you.

The Eisenhower Matrix according to your brain

Let’s give each quadrant of the traditional Eisenhower matrix a name and an explanation that makes sense from the perspective of how your brain sees those tasks or activities:

Critical: when something is important and urgent

These might be

  • legit emergencies
  • something suddenly pops up that needs to be done *now*
  • things you were supposed to do but didn’t make time for yet (and now a deadline is looming)

Your brain steers you to take care of these things to avoid a negative consequence — very understandable.

Some examples of critical things could be that your dog needs to be taken to the emergency vet, your car breaks down and you need to get it towed, or you have a deadline for a client project looming that night so you need to get it done to not disappoint your client.

Attention-seeking: When something is not important (in the grand scheme of things), but is/feels urgent

Basically doing these activities or tasks right away won’t make a big difference for you, but they want your attention immediately or at a specified time.

Attention-seekers make you feel like you’re going to miss your chance or experience a negative consequence if you don’t act right away. The tricky part is that because of this urgency it feels like you’re doing something impactful, but you’re actually just reacting to things that keep you busy.

Some examples of this could be to respond to emails right away, to check every notification on your phone as it comes in, to watch an IG live that happened to pop up in your story feed, or to attend webinars or meetings that don’t actually benefit you — but you want to join because of FOMO (fear of missing out.)

I would even say that doing marketing activities that don’t actually bring you clients belong here. For example feeling pressure to post daily REELS, if you’re not actually getting your clients through IG.

Easy: When something’s not important, or urgent — yet you find yourself drawn to it

These are activities or tasks that often have very little positive impact on your life, when you really think about them critically. They might even have a negative effect beyond that specific moment — but they’re the easiest way for your brain to get a dopamine hit, an instant reward, in that moment.

If you feel stressed about your business, or you aren’t feeling well in some way, your brain will try to help you avoid that pain by distracting you with these quick and easy wins.

This leads to dopamine hits that temporarily make you feel better, but at the end of the day make you wonder “Why the heck did I waste so much time on that again today, when I really wanted to do the things that are going to drive my business forward?”

Some examples of easy, low-effort rewards are scrolling Instagram, watching Netflix, or emptying your email inbox. (Ever written a task onto your to-do list that you already did, just so that you could check it off? I’m 100% guilty of this!)

Impactful: When something is important, but it’s not urgent

From the brain’s perspective, this quadrant probably should be named something like “way too much effort” — but for the sake of clarity let’s keep it as impactful.

These are tasks that you either know would be important or you think have the potential to make a difference for you or your business, but they usually either take longer and more effort to do, and/or they may not be guaranteed to result in a reward at all. The important part here is that *you* still feel like they’ll make an impact, but your brain doesn’t see them as important because there’s no instant reward.

Because there’s no immediate negative consequence for putting these kinds of tasks off, your brain doesn’t kick into gear to help you out. Just like I mentioned before — the brain does not see things as important unless there’s urgency involved.

Some examples of impactful tasks could be updating the copy on your website to match your new and improved niche, pitching yourself to podcasts so that you can grow your reach, or even taking time off from work to rest and recharge.

This is also the category where your client work belongs, until you get too close to the deadline and it gets bumped into critical task territory instead. In a similar way, taking good care of yourself belongs in this category too, until you experience some kind of health crisis that will move it into the critical territory.

What you can do with this information

When we categorize all the things we could do into these four options, you can see why we are inclined to gravitate towards critical, attention-seeking, or easy tasks instead of choosing an impactful one.

I just said this to someone on a coaching call a couple of days ago — it’s not your fault that it’s hard to choose to do the impactful tasks. You’re not lazy and nothing’s wrong with you as a person.

This is just how our brains and bodies are wired.

Choosing to do things that go against our wiring is a uniquely human thing to be able to do — choosing to do the impactful tasks takes a conscious effort.

That being said, the more you choose to do impactful things even when it’s challenging, the more your brain gets practice in going against that wiring. You’re teaching your brain that HEY, we’re not always going to go for the quick dopamine hit.

And eventually, it’ll get easier.

Want to free up time inside your business asap? Start with the Instant Relief guide, which includes a 4-step exercise that helps you drop time-consuming marketing tasks without sacrificing progress. Grab it here.

Listen to the Building Balance podcast for weekly thoughts and tips around productivity, and work-life balance for solo business owners.

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Jenna Hellberg

Jenna Hellberg

Helping solo business owners be more productive and create work-life balance. Get my 4-step exercise to reduce your marketing tasks→ www.jennahellberg.com/guide