Covey’s Time Management Quadrants

Being able to prioritize is an essential skill and in order to be productive, you have to invest your time wisely. A great way to prioritize is by using the Covey Quadrant that was popularized by Stephen Covey. While the book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People explains in-depth how the quadrant works, this article will show you how to use it for prioritizing your tasks.

This is what the quadrant looks like.

Every activity can be put in one of the four quadrants and this can be used for prioritizing tasks. You can see tasks that can be labeled as “important” or “not important” in combination with “urgent” or “not urgent”. If you are having a hard time prioritizing, this 2-by-2 matrix can be really useful. Especially when you plan for a productive day, you have to be able to identify which tasks you want to do based on priority. Let’s see what each quadrant means.

Quadrant 1 — Important and Urgent

The first quadrant, oftentimes referred to as the quadrant of necessity, contains the tasks that are urgent and important. These are the tasks you have to do or else you will face negative consequences. Usually these are deadline driven and/or time sensitive. On a daily basis, it is inevitable that you will do tasks that fall in quadrant one. The key is to being able to manage these.

Examples of tasks in quadrant one include:

  • Medical emergencies
  • Filing your taxes
  • Last minute changes

If you feel like you are firefighting most of your days, that is a sign that you are spending too much time in this quadrant. You are just doing the things that bring you the short-term benefits whereas you want to shift investing more time in long-term solutions (see quadrant two).

Quadrant 2 — Important and Not Urgent

This is THE quadrant where you want to invest most of your time. Tasks in quadrant two are in direct alignment of your goals and things you want to achieve in the long-run. Here are a couple examples of quadrant two tasks:

  • Exercising
  • Taking classes outside your job to advance your career
  • Working on your business while you are holding up your current job
  • Spending time with your friends and family
  • Designing and implementing systems.

Everyone’s goals and dreams are different. What might be a quadrant two task for me, might not be for you. Also, do you see that the tasks are non-urgent? This might seem counterintuitive at first. A lot of times we associate things that have a sense of urgency as important, but that is not the case. Your goals and dreams are not running away; they will be right where they are now and there is no urgency to achieving them within a specified timeline. Anything that benefits you in the long run could be considered in quadrant two.

Quadrant 3 — Not important and Urgent

Also called the quadrant of deception, people often confuse important tasks while in fact they are not important. Or people think the task is urgent but it really is not (and thus should belong in quadrant four).

A common occurrence of mistaking something as important is when someone is asking you to do something but that does not directly help you achieve your goals. The key here is prevention by being able to say “no” to these people.

An example of mistaking something as urgent, while it is not, are often sources of distraction. You would think they are urgent so you shift focus, but in reality they are not. For example, constantly checking your email inbox or responding right away to people on instant messenger.

Other common examples of quadrant three tasks include:

  • Picking up the phone while you are working
  • Checking Facebook updates
  • Checking your phone for text messages

Quadrant 4 — Not important and Not Urgent

Quadrant 4 contains the tasks you want to avoid as much as possible. These are your time wasters that you want to eliminate. If you could identify all your Q4 tasks and eliminate most of them, you would free up a lot of time you could otherwise invest in quadrant two tasks.

Some examples include:

  • Playing video games
  • Watching reruns of your favorite TV shows
  • Following the news
  • Checking your RSS feeds
  • Spending time on Reddit

The caveat is that this quadrant can be mistaken as something that shouldn’t be part of life, but that is not true. It is really important to have a balanced life between work and your personal life. You need downtime to not get burnt out and that is where quadrant four comes into the picture. The challenge is you allocate most of your time to quadrant two, with just enough of time spent in quadrant four to get by.

How to apply

Most people spend their time in quadrants one and three, but very little on quadrant two. If you want to look “busy”, quadrant three is your best friend. But if you want to be effective and productive, quadrant two should be your best friend.

Another way of looking at this matrix is that you only want to live your life in the upper part of the quadrant as much as possible. So you work on the things in quadrant one to get by, while you use the remaining time in quadrant two. In reality, you also need a little bit of quadrant four as part of your downtime.

In a perfect world all you would do is live in Q2, but the reality is not like that. Most people apply this quadrant by doing the Q1 tasks first (remember, they are a necessity) and then when these are all done, they spend time on Q2 tasks. That is one way of using this quadrant. Another way would be the frog eating method. This is where you start your day with a Q2 task, and once that is finished you do all your Q1 tasks. One approach is not necessarily better than the other. Do whatever works for you.

Real life example

Let me paint a mental picture for you to show you an example of how you can apply this quadrant for planning your day. Imagine for a moment that you are an online entrepreneur (perhaps you even are) and you have one very successful website. This website is your primary source of income and your goal is to make it even more successful where it is making ten times the income you are getting now.

So let’s say your to-do list looks like this (in random order):

  • Write sales copy for new product
  • Instruct virtual assistant to do research on competition
  • Respond to Jennifer’s FB wall post on possible date this weekend
  • Clean my apartment
  • Watch this comedy skit on Youtube that John recommended
  • Re-organize my desktop icons
  • Buy shampoo and toothpaste (ran out)
  • Cancel dentist appointment
  • Download the new album by Kanye West
  • Drive by the grocery store for donuts

Based on your new knowledge of the Covey quadrant, in which quadrant does each task belong to? Here is how I would do it.

Quadrant 1

  • Respond to Jennifer’s FB wall post on possible date this weekend — it is time sensitive.
  • Buy shampoo and toothpaste (ran out) — for some people this could be considered a crisis or emergency.
  • Cancel dentist appointment — this is time sensitive.

Quadrant 2

  • Write sales copy for new product — directly involves the money-making part of the business that is also in alignment of the goal.
  • Instruct virtual assistant to do research on competition — anything that could be considered useful for growing the business should be in Q2, like knowing how your competitors are doing.

Quadrant 3

  • Clean my apartment — this might seem important, but really is not and you should consider outsourcing this.
  • Download the new album by Kanye West — just because Kanye West might have released a new album does not constitute that it is important. Although his music is pretty damn awesome.

Quadrant 4

  • Watch this comedy skit on Youtube that John recommended
  • Re-organize my desktop icons
  • Drive by the grocery store for donuts

These Q4 tasks are not necessary and should be part of your workload, but can be great for when you have downtime.

Now that you have identified which tasks you want to work on, Q1 and Q2 tasks, it is now up to you to schedule how you want to do them. You can either do all Q1 tasks and then use the remaining time for Q2 tasks. Or you pick the frog eating method, where you start off with a Q2 tasks, then do all Q1 tasks, and then if you have time left you go back to quadrant two.

Next Actions

  • For the next task you need to accomplish, can you identify in which quadrant it belongs to?
  • When you start your day picking your most important tasks, use the quadrant to figure out what your most important tasks are.

-Thanh