Your goal in time management is to spend time on the things worth doing, and then to do them efficiently. Sounds simple, yet most of us struggle every day with a wealth of choices about how to make the best use of our time. One straightforward tool will transform how you think about time, and help you make smarter choices.
Matrix that Maps Importance and Urgency
The tool is a four-cell matrix developed by best-selling author Stephen Covey in his classic book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. He understands that some tasks are more urgent than others. Some are also more important than others. The dynamic tension between urgency and importance characterizes just about every task you’ll face.
This framework sets up this creative tension:
|High Urgency||Low Urgency|
|High Importance||Fight fires||Build for the future|
|Low Importance||Jump at the bell||Escape|
Activities that are urgent, and important, are definitely worth doing. Still, when we’re at them, we feel like we’re fighting fires. Activities that are important, but not urgent, help us build for the future. Activities that feel urgent, but really aren’t important, make us jump at the bell, more out of habit than real need. And when we choose activities that are neither urgent, nor important, we’re clearly in the mood to escape.
The activities in this quadrant are both important and urgent – things like “crises, pressing problems, deadline driven projects, meetings, and preparations.” Got to be done – no argument there. Deliver the project on time, feel the adrenaline, and be a hero. Save the day, right? The only problem is that adrenaline works like a drug, and can be habit forming. In the long run, it’s not good for you or the organization. The biggest problem with fighting fires is that it keeps us so busy we can’t build for the future. And without investing in supports that take time to build, and yield long-term benefits, we’ll never get out of the burning forest.
Build for the Future
The activities in this quadrant are important, but not urgent – things like “preparation, prevention, values clarification, planning, relationship building, true re-creation, and empowerment.” They’re like exercise or meditating or eating well. You can always skip a day, or week, and maybe even a month, without immediate dire effects. But make it a habit and your miraculous body will rebel in sickness and stress. Now there’s a fire to fight! These activities help us build for the future. We invest time in them. They are the systems that prevent crises in the first place. We say, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” That translates as, “An ounce of building for the future is worth a pound of fighting fires.”
Jump at the Bell
The activities in this quadrant are urgent, but not important – things like “interruptions, some phone calls, some mail, some reports, some meetings, many popular activities, and many proximate, pressing matters.” The phone rings – you answer it, right? Maybe not. It sounds urgent, but it may not be important. If you are working a deadline, or having a great conversation with a colleague about reinventing the way you work, let the machine take it. Ditto when you having a family dinner at home. That is relationship time. Keep it sacred. Build a boundary between you and these urgent, unimportant interruptions.
The activities in this quadrant are not urgent, and not important either – things like “trivia, busywork, some telephone calls, time wasters, excessive TV, and time wasters.” What’s your favorite? Come on! Frankly, most of us are so stressed from fighting fires all day that we need some escape time just to feel normal again. They go together like a drink and a smoke. And are just as good for you! Okay, have fun, but be mindful here. Do these by choice, not by habit.
Jay W Vogt is an organizational development consultant, and author of Recharge Your Team – The Grounded Visioning Approach. Learn more at www.peoplesworth.com.