Last Updated on March 10, 2021

How To Use the Time Management Matrix To Do What Matters

How To Use the Time Management Matrix To Do What Matters

When major life changes or disruptions happen, time management is one of the first things to fly out the window. In those situations, time can lose all definitions. Understandably, the terms “urgent” and “important” take on new meanings.

In his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey popularized a concept he calls the time management matrix. Covey breaks down the time we spend while awake into four quadrants:

  • Quadrant 1: Urgent and Important. Examples: getting help in a medical emergency, or stopping a small child from running into traffic.
  • Quadrant 2: Not Urgent, but Important. Examples: getting the oil in your car changed regularly, or meeting an internal company goal to respond meaningfully to every customer contact within an hour.
  • Quadrant 3: Urgent, but Not Important. Examples: a co-worker stopping by to ask about the company picnic, or responding to “limited time” offers.
  • Quadrant 4: Neither Urgent nor Important. Examples: doomscrolling through social media feeds, responding to website comments posted by people you don’t know, or TV binge sessions.

Here’s the matrix graph illustrated by Sage Automation:[1]

    To make the best possible use of these four quadrants, we need to be brutally honest about how—and to what—we assign Covey’s terms. Here’s how to go about it:

    1. Put a Dollar Figure on Your Time

    If you want to eliminate the time-wasters in your life, start treating your time as if it were money. Considering time as an asset can feel like a somewhat fuzzy concept. Affixing dollar signs to your hours will bring clarity in a hurry.

    Finance expert Dave Ramsey suggests tracking every penny you earn by assigning all of your money to a category. For example, $1,000 of your next paycheck might fall into the category of “rent,” $400 might go to “groceries,” and so on.


    Until you start naming and tracking your time, time management will be nothing more than guesswork and gut feelings. Combining the Covey time management matrix and the Ramsey technique is the first step toward putting yourself in the time management driver’s seat. Maybe you decide your time carries a cash value of $30 per hour. At the end of a Netflix binge, for example, you find that you’ve spent 4.5 hours. That comes to a net value of $135. Record this in a daily log under “entertainment.”

    If you’re like most people, your moment of clarity is likely to arrive at the end of the month when you total up the dollar values you’ve assigned to your various life categories.

    While you might have shrugged off the $135 “spent” on a single TV binge, how will you feel when you discover that, in one month, you spent $1,485 in that category? As a point of reference, your available inventory of time for a 31-day month, assuming 16 waking hours a day, comes to $14,880. Work hours alone probably soaked up something in the $4,500-$6,000 range.

    Now you have the power to bring real clarity to managing your priorities. Was watching TV really worth almost 10% of your total waking hours? Only you can answer this question.

    2. Prepare Yourself for Time Management Matrix Success

    Start by Writing Out Every Task

    At this point, all you’re trying to do is empty out your brain. Don’t spend any energy thinking about urgency, importance, or deadline. That part will come later. For now, just do your best to get all of the tasks buzzing around inside your brain into a spreadsheet or on paper.

    Use whatever tools work best for you so you can unload your thoughts as quickly as possible. Don’t stop until you are confident that you’ve captured everything.

    Next, Assign a Deadline to Each Task

    Start by filling in those deadlines you know to be set in stone. To maintain healthy relationships, you’ll want to prioritize the commitments you’ve already made to other people. If possible, set your deadlines ahead of what you’ve promised—you may need that flex time further down the road. Start with a time management goal of being known as the sort of person who under-promises and over-delivers.


    Highlight the tasks you know to be urgent. Be careful with your application of the term “urgent.” What seems urgent to you may be of no consequence to your family, friends, and customers. Everyone needs to come up with a personal working definition but to start off, use this classification sparingly.

    Prioritize previous commitments as you classify. You can always go back and upgrade a specific task to this status, but start by showing some restraint. After all, if everything is urgent, then nothing can be truly urgent.

    Reorder Your List by Importance

    This is where using a spreadsheet instead of paper can really pay off. Insert an importance column on your spreadsheet, or pick a different colored pen or marker if you’re using paper or index cards. Give each task an importance rating from 1 (not at all important) to 100 (of the utmost importance).

    I personally like to use a scale of 1 to 100 because of the granularity it provides. For example, two tasks might both rate an 8 on a 1 to 10 scale, but you can differentiate between an 82 and an 88 when sorting.

    3. Plug Your Life Into the Time Management Matrix

    Now, take a step back and look at what you’ve got. If you’ve done your homework, you should now see every one of your tasks along with its rankings for importance and urgency.

    Begin moving each task into one of the four quadrants of the time management matrix. Start with the obvious placements. Once they are on the grid, you can assess the close calls that might legitimately end up in either one of two quadrants. You may begin reranking items in terms of importance or urgency, and that’s fine. You may realize some tasks aren’t as important or urgent as you initially thought.

    Q1: Maintain an Open Landing Strip

    Try to keep as many things out of the Urgent and Important quadrant as you can. That may not be possible on your first attempt at time management, but set a long-range goal of maintaining some open space in Q1. You can accomplish this by dealing with tasks that appear in the other three quadrants as efficiently and effectively as possible.


    For example, a busy startup founder will still want to stay in shape but not have hours to spend in the gym. Wall Street Journal best-selling author Dr. John Jaquish recommends variable resistance training over heavy weight training. “Variable resistance training is scientifically proven to yield better results for fitness in far less time,” says Dr. Jaquish. “This, combined with a high-protein diet can give entrepreneurs the results they want without sacrificing valuable hours out of their day.”

    Obviously, you could get a client call 10 minutes from now that instantly places something in Q1. No planning or preparation on your part could have stopped it from landing there, so that’s not your fault. Your job is to keep the landing strip available for this eventuality.

    Q2: Knock Out These Tasks With Dedicated Blocks of Time

    If something is important, it stands a good chance of eventually becoming urgent. Using the oil change example, you obviously want to address this task before your engine seizes up. If you don’t, a Q2 task suddenly has to be reclassified Q1, and you’ll have a brand-new Q1 to keep it company: “Get a rental car.”

    Other Q2 tasks may never become urgent, but that doesn’t diminish the importance of these bigger-picture items. “Maybe you’ve committed to learning more to help advance workplace antiracism,” notes author and Forbes contributor Dana Brownlee. “That goal most likely won’t materialize until and unless you’ve proactively blocked time on your calendar to ensure you’re appropriating necessary time towards that goal.”[2]

    Without a conscious effort to schedule these tasks, they will remain forever undone.

    Q3: Ask Your Urgent Items a Few Questions

    At least one problem with this category is that urgent tasks often masquerade as important. It’s common to confuse the two, so it’s critical to learn to make this distinction. A text from a prospective client you’re hoping to land is urgent while an email from your insurance agent wanting to schedule an annual policy review can probably wait until Friday.

    Emails, voice mails, text messages, and other forms of instantaneous communication nearly always carry with them a sense of urgency, but they might not be important. As you look at the things that have landed in Q3, ask yourself whether you share the sender’s sense of urgency or not. It might be time to unsubscribe to certain groups, individuals, or newsletters to minimize Q3 clutter.


    Q4: Make the Most of Your Not Urgent, Not Important Activities

    Q4 is the quadrant every would-be time manager likes to dump on, but don’t be so hasty. While you definitely want to eliminate outright time sucks, this is also the quadrant where downtime lives. Rather than vowing to swear off all Q4 activities entirely, make the most of those you do engage in.

    First, begin by eliminating or delegating tasks that aren’t the best use of your time. Sure, that report needs to be reformatted, but an intern could likely do it for you. Use sales software to automate your prospecting emails so you don’t have to send them all yourself.

    When it comes to taking a break, be conscious of activities that leave you feeling refreshed and those that leave you feeling drained. Say yes to that walk in the woods and no to arguing with strangers on social media. By choosing your leisure activities wisely, you’ll get the most from your Q4 buck.

    Final Thoughts

    Covey’s time management matrix is a tremendous tool to adopt when you feel as though your schedule controls you instead of the other way around. Your success will likely boil down to how honest you are with yourself when assigning labels.

    Don’t be afraid to ask yourself, “Is this truly urgent?” You’ll also need to make sharp distinctions between what is important to you and what is important to someone else. It’s all too easy to accept someone else’s label of “important” or “urgent” uncritically.

    There’s a sweet spot to time management that puts you in full control of your schedule without veering into rigid thinking. Entrepreneurs, in particular, will need to factor some flexibility into their schedules so they can take advantage of Q1 opportunities that pop up unannounced. Too much flex, though, and you’ll end up wasting time. As you customize the techniques of Covey and Ramsey to fit your life, give yourself some grace to make mistakes and tweak as needed. You’ll get there.

    More Tips for Effective Time Management

    Featured photo credit: explorenation # via



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    John Hall

    John Hall is the co-founder and president of Calendar, a leading scheduling and productivity app that will change how we manage and invest our time.

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    Last Updated on July 21, 2021

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

    No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

    Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

    Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

    A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

    Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

    In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.


    From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

    A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

    For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

    This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

    The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

    That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

    Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!


    The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

    Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

    But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

    The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

    The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

    A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

    For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.


    But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

    If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

    For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

    These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

    For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

    How to Make a Reminder Works for You

    Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.


    Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

    Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

    My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

    Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

    I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

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    [1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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