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 October 21, 2021

    How to Create Your Own Ritual to Conquer Time Wasters and Laziness

    How to Create Your Own Ritual to Conquer Time Wasters and Laziness

    Life is wasted in the in-between times. The time between when your alarm first rings and when you finally decide to get out of bed. The time between when you sit at your desk and when productive work begins. The time between making a decision and doing something about it.

    Slowly, your day is whittled away from all the unused in-between moments. Eventually, time wasters, laziness, and procrastination get the better of you.

    The solution to reclaim these lost middle moments is by creating rituals. Every culture on earth uses rituals to transfer information and encode behaviors that are deemed important. Personal rituals can help you build a better pattern for handling everything from how you wake up to how you work.

    Unfortunately, when most people see rituals, they see pointless superstitions. Indeed, many rituals are based on a primitive understanding of the world. But by building personal rituals, you get to encode the behaviors you feel are important and cut out the wasted middle moments.


    Program Your Own Algorithms

    Another way of viewing rituals is by seeing them as computer algorithms. An algorithm is a set of instructions that is repeated to get a result.

    Some algorithms are highly efficient, sorting or searching millions of pieces of data in a few seconds. Other algorithms are bulky and awkward, taking hours to do the same task.

    By forming rituals, you are building algorithms for your behavior. Take the delayed and painful pattern of waking up, debating whether to sleep in for another two minutes, hitting the snooze button, repeat until almost late for work. This could be reprogrammed to get out of bed immediately, without debating your decision.

    How to Form a Ritual

    I’ve set up personal rituals for myself for handling e-mail, waking up each morning, writing articles, and reading books. Far from making me inflexible, these rituals give me a useful default pattern that works best 99% of the time. Whenever my current ritual won’t work, I’m always free to stop using it.


    Forming a ritual isn’t too difficult, and the same principles for changing habits apply:

    1. Write out your sequence of behavior. I suggest starting with a simple ritual of only 3-4 steps maximum. Wait until you’ve established a ritual before you try to add new steps.
    2. Commit to following your ritual for thirty days. This step will take the idea and condition it into your nervous system as a habit.
    3. Define a clear trigger. When does your ritual start? A ritual to wake up is easy—the sound of your alarm clock will work. As for what triggers you to go to the gym, read a book or answer e-mail—you’ll have to decide.
    4. Tweak the Pattern. Your algorithm probably won’t be perfectly efficient the first time. Making a few tweaks after the first 30-day trial can make your ritual more useful.

    Ways to Use a Ritual

    Based on the above ideas, here are some ways you could implement your own rituals:

    1. Waking Up

    Set up a morning ritual for when you wake up and the next few things you do immediately afterward. To combat the grogginess after immediately waking up, my solution is to do a few pushups right after getting out of bed. After that, I sneak in ninety minutes of reading before getting ready for morning classes.

    2. Web Usage

    How often do you answer e-mail, look at Google Reader, or check Facebook each day? I found by taking all my daily internet needs and compressing them into one, highly-efficient ritual, I was able to cut off 75% of my web time without losing any communication.


    3. Reading

    How much time do you get to read books? If your library isn’t as large as you’d like, you might want to consider the rituals you use for reading. Programming a few steps to trigger yourself to read instead of watching television or during a break in your day can chew through dozens of books each year.

    4. Friendliness

    Rituals can also help with communication. Set up a ritual of starting a conversation when you have opportunities to meet people.

    5. Working

    One of the hardest barriers when overcoming procrastination is building up a concentrated flow. Building those steps into a ritual can allow you to quickly start working or continue working after an interruption.

    6. Going to the gym

    If exercising is a struggle, encoding a ritual can remove a lot of the difficulty. Set up a quick ritual for going to exercise right after work or when you wake up.


    7. Exercise

    Even within your workouts, you can have rituals. Spacing the time between runs or reps with a certain number of breaths can remove the guesswork. Forming a ritual of doing certain exercises in a particular order can save time.

    8. Sleeping

    Form a calming ritual in the last 30-60 minutes of your day before you go to bed. This will help slow yourself down and make falling asleep much easier. Especially if you plan to get up full of energy in the morning, it will help if you remove insomnia.

    8. Weekly Reviews

    The weekly review is a big part of the GTD system. By making a simple ritual checklist for my weekly review, I can get the most out of this exercise in less time. Originally, I did holistic reviews where I wrote my thoughts on the week and progress as a whole. Now, I narrow my focus toward specific plans, ideas, and measurements.

    Final Thoughts

    We all want to be productive. But time wasters, procrastination, and laziness sometimes get the better of us. If you’re facing such difficulties, don’t be afraid to make use of these rituals to help you conquer them.


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    Featured photo credit: RODOLFO BARRETO via

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