The Hardest Question Regarding Time Management
If you are not moving forward in life, chances are you’re spending the majority of your time in Quadrant One—taking care of the urgent and important responsibilities (see below). While it’s essential that the urgent and important are taken care of, when we continually live in this zone it is a sign of a lack of strategy, and likely a prognostic sign that you will not be progressing at the rate you would like.
Let me tell you a little more about this, and at the end I want to ask you what I believe to be the hardest (and possibly the most important) question regarding time management.
I learned this principle from Stephen Covey a few years ago. However, if I am not careful, life naturally pushes me to live in Quadrant One. So it becomes crucial that I remind myself and those in my circles of influence to be watchful of this tendency.
First, allow me to quickly review Covey’s four quadrants in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. He explains:
- Quadrant One: The urgent and important tasks (where we often end up, but we need to find ways to spend less time here)
- Quadrant Two: The non-urgent important tasks (where we need to spend more time)
- Quadrant Three: The urgent non-important tasks (less time needs to be spent here)
- Quadrant Four: The non-urgent and non-important tasks (less time needs to be spent here)
By the way, if you have not read his book, I would recommend it. It is however a long read with a lot of repetitions. Rather than reading it word-for-word, I would recommend that you scan it for the most important content. In the book, you will find a square with four quadrants.
How to Adjust Your Time Management for Maximum Effectiveness
First, define and list what is important.
When you think about what tasks are important versus unimportant for example, many people may list watching TV as unimportant and determine to eliminate it. On the other hand, watching TV may be very important to you. Who’s to say what is important and what is not? Who should have the authority to define for us, as adults, what is important? You. You define it for yourself.
For example, I have six areas of importance in my life: my life purpose, faith, family, fun, friends, and making a living. So for me, watching TV is important in two areas that support my priorities. I watch certain shows to educate myself so I can serve my life purpose. I also, but very rarely, watch TV for fun. So while it is not unimportant to me, watching a show that will not educate me and will not add to the fun priority of my life would be unimportant.
What is important is whatever will serve your priorities. You cannot apply these powerful principles if you do not know what is important to you. Decide what is important for you generally in life. Then determine how to adapt your priorities specifically to the roles or projects you are handling. For example, what is important to you as a parent or for your family? What is important to you as a boss or a team leader? Or what is most important to you in your new position? You decide. But do not neglect this foundational step to determine what is important in your life and leadership.
Second, remove the unimportant.
I know this may sound intuitive and not even worthy of mentioning. But it is actually important to mention and emphasize. If you are like me, you may forget to remove the unimportant. The reason we often overlook this step is because what we most often do during the day is answer and address the necessary and urgent. We placate our emotions and feelings, important or not.
Whether you are applying this to a project or to your life, stop and define what is important. Then list what you have to do under “important” or “not important.” Only then will you be clearly and consistently aware of what to eliminate. But again make sure not to remove what others would deem as unimportant. You define what is important for yourself.
If as a team leader what is most important to you is to increase team work and improve core processes, then remove everything else that does not support these end goals. We need to eliminate Quadrant Three and Four. The unimportant needs to become the never done.
Now we are ready to move to the area that will revolutionize your life.
Third, define and list what is not urgent.
By the way, why do I say define and list? Define means take the time to think about it and decide what it is. List means write it down. Write it down so it is crystal-clear, you will not forget it, and you will focus on it like a laser beam.
So dealing now only with the important, these should be divided into the urgent and non-urgent. Here is how I define urgent for myself. Urgent is anything that if I neglect to complete in a few hours or a few days, someone will be upset—a relationship will be negatively affected or a process will suffer.
These obviously have to be handled. This is Quadrant One, where most of us spend the majority of our time. The urgent tasks are those that we cannot ignore or someone will be mad, or something will go bad. Quadrant Two on the other hand, (the non-urgent) is where we calmly think, strategize, plan, prioritize, contemplate, and reflect.
A funny quote I love to use to remind myself of this is: “When you’re up to your neck in alligators, it’s easy to forget you came to drain the swamp.”
We cannot think about how to move our team or family forward if all we are handling are the urgent responsibilities. Unfortunately, most of us spend our days attending to the urgent and the important—what we “have to do”—often times just to catch up. We work hard. And that is good; without hard work there can be no forward momentum. However, what really moves us forward to the next level in life and in work is slowing down and taking care of those non-urgent projects which usually require strategizing, planning, or fixing foundational matters.
So what should you do? Write down your responsibilities (now hopefully only important ones), into the non-urgent and urgent. My to-do list is divided into two categories (two rows of “urgent” and “non-urgent”), and several columns of each area of my responsibilities. For my Clinic Responsibilities under “urgent” I have written: “Find doctor to cover me next month” since I will be taking off one day to attend a conference. This is very important and urgent. If left unaddressed, it will not move things forward. Under the “non-urgent” I have written: “Think about our team’s weekly meeting.” Our weekly meetings are going well, but I want them to be better. This is not urgent. As a matter of fact if I don’t do anything about it, no one will complain. But if I do a good job with this important (and not urgent) task, it will move us forward.
So, break down your responsibilities into the urgent and non-urgent. Don’t be too fickle about it. Some things will not fit so neatly in these categories, but don’t over-complicate it.
Fourth, daily ask yourself the hardest question.
The hardest question:
How can I spend more time in Quadrant Two?
This is something you may want to measure. Literally, how many hours of your day are spent tackling areas which must be addressed in order to avoid crisis? Or how much time is spent each day on things that have to be done versus time calmly dedicated to areas that will move you forward—the non-urgent category?
I hope this will help you on your journey, my friend. I want to see you, just as I want to see myself, fulfill your life purpose and reach your God-given potential. I am convinced that we will do that if we prioritize spending more time on the non-urgent and important—reflecting on our direction and strengthening our foundation.
Every day, ask yourself this hard question regarding time management, and I hope you will be able to give yourself the right answer often.
Question: What techniques and actions can you employ, so you can spend more time in Quadrant Two?
I look forward to hearing from you in the comment section.