The whole concept of time management is kind of a misnomer. We don’t really manage time. Time waits for no man, but we can manage our choices about what we do with our time. Some notable quotes help illustrate this pretty well:
“It’s not enough to be busy…the question is: what are we busy about”--Henry David Thoreau
“You get to decide where your time goes. You can either spend it moving forward, or you can spend it putting out fires. You decide. And if you don’t decide, others will decide for you.”-- Tony Morgan
These choices we make about what we spend our time on should be predicated on a system of prioritization. When I started doing a deeper dive into learning about prioritization, I was, coincidentally, reading a book by Steven R. Covey entitled The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. In one section of the book, he drew up a time management matrix that was based on President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s prioritization tool, which he humbly called the “Eisenhower Matrix.” You can easily see a picture of the matrix on the internet but I’ll try to describe it here. The matrix is a two-by-two box (so four quadrants) with the following labels across the top and the left side of the boxes:
Urgent Not Urgent
Important Quadrant 1 Quadrant 2
Not Important Quadrant 3 Quadrant 4
By using this matrix at the start of every week, you’ll be able to figure out where you need to spend your time. Most of us already have to-do lists and yet we have no way to prioritize them. To understand what each quadrant means and what belongs in each one, let’s take a look at each quadrant in turn.
Quadrant 1 will include tasks and activities that are “urgent” and “important.” Covey subtitled this the “Do” box. This part of the matrix is often referred to as the firefighting box or the “problems and panic” section. Out of necessity, you have to address items that fall into this category, but we really don’t want to spend much time there. Remember that they are urgent and important.
Quadrant 2 is where we want to place our focus, energy and time. This quadrant is the “not urgent but important” box. Covey subtitled this the “plan” box and used examples such as relationship building, exercise, and vocation (like attending a conference that is likely to help you improve your leadership skills). Long-term projects, goal setting sessions, looking at new opportunities, recreation, and other planning and prevention activities fit into this quadrant.
It has been said that if you spend as little as 10 percent of your time taking action on items in this quadrant, you will become exponentially more productive. I believe that at least 25 percent of your day should be spent here in Quadrant 2. Some of the results you achieve may take some time to come to fruition, kind of like planting seeds now and waiting some time for the fruit to be ready.
Quadrant 3 is the “urgent and not important” box. I recall that Covey said this is the “delegate” or “avoid” box. In this box, you’ll find Interruptions, distractions, and most phone calls. When your phone rings, it feels urgent, but is it important? I have found that most phone calls, most emails, a lot of reports and a lot of meetings are completely not important and rob us of our time. Some people are fond of dropping in on you asking “Do you have a minute?” and when you engage with that person, it’s never for just one minute and it’s often not important. These interruptions and distractions have to be avoided or you’ll find yourself at the end of the day asking, “Where did all my time go?” and feel like you accomplished very little.
The fourth Quadrant is the “not urgent and not important” box. Covey populated this box with time wasters, busy work and doing nothing. It should come as no surprise that items in this box must be eliminated from your daily activities. Why we spend time here comes from recent sociological phenomenon such as FOMO, and digital connectivity. While these might be pleasant activities, they really are just piddling pastimes. Eliminating these tasks from your daily routines will free up many hours for you each week.
Now you have a glimpse into one method for prioritization. I challenge you to spend 30 minutes at the beginning of each week planning your activities and placing them into the appropriate quadrants. By doing this, I guarantee your productivity will jump up and your sense of accomplishment will be phenomenal. You’ll see how much time is wasted in the quadrants 3 and 4 and you’ll be gratified to kick the habit of succumbing to these time wasters.
I have a growing respect for another system of prioritization, which I’ll talk about in the next column. For now, I’ll just let you know it’s called Getting Things Done.