Managing Your Workload Part One - The Eisenhower Matrix

It’s a common thread in comments I hear from practice managers –you spend 99% of your time putting out one proverbial fire after another.


After that, it’s settling down to do the latest nonsensical report that’s apparently uber-important, and has to be finished by yesterday…

Everyone has something that requires your urgent attention, to the point where your to-do lists are all marked as “needs doing NOW!” The hard part is objectively defining exactly what is important, what is urgent, and what you can downgrade from “DEFCON 1” to “are you serious?”

American President Dwight D Eisenhower said in 1954: “I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent”. Since then, this approach to organising workloads and priorities has been known as “The Eisenhower Principle”.

So what’s the difference between ‘urgent’ and ‘important’?

Good time management means being effective as well as efficient – spending time on the important jobs and not just those ones that are urgent, so it’s important to understand the difference.

If something is urgent, it means it needs immediate attention; they’re the ones that say “I must be done now”, and are your responsibility to get done.

Important jobs are those that meet your long-term values and goals, but not time-bound. You could schedule these in, like a trip to the shops or a staff meeting, but you don’t urgently need to have a meeting – do you…?

Let’s be honest, we’ve all been there…

The way to balance workloads is to keep evaluating what is the most important thing to do in each moment. This way, you can make the best use of your time and not worry about other jobs waiting to be actioned; as long as you know the actions left on your list are less important than the one you’re doing right now, you have a sense of control in what you will focus on.

The problems arise when you don’t plan ahead, and prioritise on the fly - this is when everything seems like an emergency - with every new task (whether it’s from partners, GPs, your staff or patients), you increasingly lose control of what you’re doing, and this is what can lead to stress and ‘burnout’.

How to use the Eisenhower Matrix

You will need the following:

  • Paper or a whiteboard
  • Pen / Post-it notes
  • Honesty

Start writing your to-do list, including everything that you should be doing today. That includes not-related-to-work items too, like going to the gym, shopping and ‘wasting time on the Daily Mail website’.

Next, draw yourself the table - you can do this on a whiteboard, or use this one we prepared earlier (that’s right, just for you!)

Click here to download the FPM Workload Prioritisation Toolkit.

If you know which jobs are important and which are urgent, then you’ve got your priorities sorted for the day/week/whatever. You can start to clear your diary, set aside the right amount of time and focus on the right tasks, instead of that default position of ‘firefighting’.

Let’s break down each of the options in the table…

Important and Urgent: These are the jobs that must be on your to-do list and need your immediate attention, so take care of these as soon as possible - patient issues, urgent reports, finishing important projects etc.

You can think of the first quadrant as the “get this done first” part… the really important and urgent stuff that needs to be done by you today or tomorrow.

Important, Not Urgent: These are ones that don’t have an immediate deadline, but they will help you achieve your goals and complete important work. Strategic planning, personal and professional development, and financial reviews would fit in this category.

You basically need to decide when you will do these tasks, so plan ahead with these jobs and schedule them into your calendar, which will also give you time to plan ahead and identify how much time you have to complete them.

Not Important, Still Urgent: These are tasks that need completing but delay you from achieving your bigger goals. Ask yourself – can I do this later, or can I delegate it to somebody else? If something falls into this category, such as technical problems or a meeting that doesn’t need your particular skillset, then you can delegate these tasks to someone else.

That doesn’t mean you’re just palming off work because you can’t/won’t do it - you will always get interruptions from other people asking for you to do something, so it’s appropriate to say “no” sometimes and encourage people to do it themselves instead.

Not Important, Not Urgent: This box is where you can identify the stuff that is less important and less urgent, and could be jobs that you shouldn’t actually do at all.

Nine times out of ten these are going to be little more than distractions in your day. They’re more than likely jobs that other people want you to do that don’t really need your attention, trivial or simply timewasters, and they’re unlikely to help you achieve your large-scale goals.

Action Planning

Now you have this system in place, take some time this week to put into action. Check back to the FPM Blog next week, when we’ll look at how to further refine your timekeeping skills and share our top tips for time management.

FPM members can access a range of valuable information, resources and toolkits. Plus, if you're dealing with a tricky HR issue, you can contact our helpline at To learn more about the benefits of an FPM membership, click here.

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