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 March 23, 2021

    Manage Your Energy so You Can Manage Your Time

    Manage Your Energy so You Can Manage Your Time

    One of the greatest ironies of this age is that while various gadgets like smartphones and netbooks allow you to multitask, it seems that you never manage to get things done. You are caught in the busyness trap. There’s just too much work to do in one day that sometimes you end up exhausted with half-finished tasks.

    The problem lies in how to keep our energy level high to ensure that you finish at least one of your most important tasks for the day. There’s just not enough hours in a day and it’s not possible to be productive the whole time.

    You need more than time management. You need energy management

    1. Dispel the idea that you need to be a “morning person” to be productive

    How many times have you heard (or read) this advice – wake up early so that you can do all the tasks at hand. There’s nothing wrong with that advice. It’s actually reeks of good common sense – start early, finish early. The thing is that technique alone won’t work with everyone. Especially not with people who are not morning larks.


    I should know because I was once deluded with the idea that I will be more productive if I get out of bed by 6 a.m. Like most of you Lifehackers, I’m always on the lookout for productivity hacks because I have a lot of things in my plate. I’m working full time as an editor for a news agency, while at the same time tending to my side business as a content marketing strategist. I’m also a travel blogger and oh yeah, I forgot, I also have a life.

    I read a lot of productivity books and blogs looking for ways to make the most of my 24 hours. Most stories on productivity stress waking up early. So I did – and I was a major failure in that department – both in waking up early and finishing early.

    2. Determine your “peak hours”

    Energy management begins with looking for your most productive hours in a day. Getting attuned to your body clock won’t happen instantly but there’s a way around it.

    Monitor your working habits for one week and list down the time when you managed to do the most work. Take note also of what you feel during those hours – do you feel energized or lethargic? Monitor this and you will find a pattern later on.


    My experiment with being a morning lark proved that ignoring my body clock and just doing it by disciplining myself to wake up before 8 a.m. will push me to be more productive. I thought that by writing blog posts and other reports in the morning that I would be finished by noon and use my lunch break for a quick gym session. That never happened. I was sleepy, distracted and couldn’t write jack before 10 a.m.

    In fact that was one experiment that I shouldn’t have tried because I should know better. After all, I’ve been writing for a living for the last 15 years, and I have observed time and again that I write more –and better – in the afternoon and in evenings after supper. I’m a night owl. I might as well, accept it and work around it.

    Just recently, I was so fired up by a certain idea that – even if I’m back home tired from work – I took out my netbook, wrote and published a 600-word blog post by 11 p.m. This is a bit extreme and one of my rare outbursts of energy, but it works for me.

    3. Block those high-energy hours

    Once you have a sense of that high-energy time, you can then mold your schedule so that your other less important tasks will be scheduled either before or after this designated productive time.


    Block them out in your calendar and use the high-energy hours for your high priority tasks – especially those that require more of your mental energy and focus. You also need to use these hours to any task that will bring you closer to you life’s goal.

    If you are a morning person, you might want to schedule most business meetings before lunch time as it’s important to keep your mind sharp and focused. But nothing is set in stone. Sometimes you have to sacrifice those productive hours to attend to other personal stuff – like if you or your family members are sick or if you have to attend your son’s graduation.

    That said, just remember to keep those productive times on your calendar. You may allow for some exemptions but stick to that schedule as much as possible.

    There’s no right or wrong way of using this energy management technique because everything depends on your own personal circumstances. What you need to remember is that you have to accept what works for you – and not what other productivity gurus say you should do.


    Understanding your own body clock is the key to time management. Without it, you end up exhausted chasing a never-ending cycle of tasks and frustrations.

    Featured photo credit: Collin Hardy via

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