Our time and energy are precious, yet we often struggle to use them appropriately to avoid delaying certain responsibilities until they can no longer be delayed. Learning how to manage our attention effectively, and direct our energy on the things that matter the most, is key to ensuring productivity and efficiency, within the workplace and in our personal lives. After all, there’s only so much of both we can offer throughout a single day.
For the past year, I’ve been using a tool that endeavours to reduce the number of tasks requiring immediate attention. It instead recommends focussing on non-urgent important tasks which ultimately leads to being not just more productive, but highly effective, and it works providing immediate results. Since applying this new tool in my decision process, I’ve noticed the following:
- I spend my time effectively, opting for things that promote personal or professional growth
- I work more efficiently, ensuring the relevant responsibilities get seen to when they should
- I hardly find myself in a situation where I’ve left things until the last minute
This tool is known as the Time Management Matrix and is based on a principle first coined by President Eisenhower and popularised by author Stephen Covey in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change.
History of The Matrix
Having originally heard about the Time Management Matrix in Covey’s book, the idea stemmed from a comment made by Eisenhower during one of his speeches:
“I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.” — Dwight D. Eisenhower
The 34th president’s remarks led to a clever way of prioritising tasks — and it became known as The Eisenhower Matrix.
The Eisenhower Matrix — also referred to as the Time Management Matrix and several other names — requires categorising tasks inside a matrix measuring them based on their importance and urgency. Plotting tasks based on these two parameters ensures that less time is spent on irrelevant/non-important and non-urgent tasks, and more time is spent focussing on important non-urgent tasks.
Because they are important, they deserve your attention but because they are non-urgent, you are carrying them out well before their due date, eliminating all kinds of urgency related stress.
“A perfect method for adding drama to life is to wait until the deadline looms large.” — Alyce P. Cornyn-Selby
The Time Management Matrix
In his book, Covey popularises this tool and introduces his audience to each of the matrix’s quadrants, emphasizing on reducing, focussing & avoiding.
- Quadrant 1 — symbolising the critical and urgent tasks
- Quadrant 2 — the important and non-urgent tasks
- Quadrant 3 — the non-important and urgent ones, and
- Quadrant 4 — the non-important and non-urgent tasks
Looking Deeper into The Quadrants
You may be wondering how to correctly classify these tasks, given we’re constantly surrounded by different types of responsibilities.
- Quadrant 1 contains things you need to MANAGE and get done immediately. A crisis, a medical emergency, a deadline-driven activity, and last-minute preparations.
- Quadrant 2 involves FOCUSSING through preparation, planning, and relationship building. It’s typically the zone you want to spend the most time on and the one helping you grow and move closer towards your goals. Make these a priority.
- Quadrant 3 consists of activities you should do with CAUTION or AVOID. They may include interruptions, meeting others’ expectations, and tending to “pressing matters”.
- Quadrant 4 is where you’ll find those activities which are best AVOIDED. Mindless-TV, junk emails, escapist activities.
I started looking at my tasks through the Time Management Matrix, focussing on completing them whilst they still fell under the second quadrant. What I saw was a significant reduction in completing tasks with a sense of urgency and an increase in working effectively and comfortably well within due dates.
Categorising your tasks based on urgency and importance could bring about huge benefits when it comes to deciding what to focus your time and attention on. To aim for maximised productivity and effectiveness, slot your tasks within the Time Management Matrix quadrants and focus on completing non-urgent important ones. In doing so, you will reduce the number of tasks that do require immediate attention.
Of course, you may find yourself in a situation where something unexpected has cropped up. A task or responsibility you haven’t accounted for in your matrix. By no means should you ignore these. Some of these are inevitable. The matrix simply helps you decide what needs attending to and when — reducing as many responsibilities as possible from entering the urgency zone.
The next time you find yourself carrying out a task ask yourself:
- How worthy is this of my energy right now? (Ensure you’re not replacing important tasks with escapist activities)
- What do I need to do that is really important and is worth getting a head start on now?
The first point will encourage you to consider the second. The second will make bring about amazing results.