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:
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.”
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.
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.
Featured photo credit: explorenation # via unsplash.com