How to master time management

Drowning in your to do list? Revisit Stephen Covey's time management matrix.

by Arun Kakar
Last Updated: 23 Nov 2017

You’ve probably heard of Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, which has sold over 25 million copies worldwide, but do you have the time to read it? We’re all given the same 24 hours a day, but some people just make better use of them. The question of how the most productive among us are able to get more done has been the subject of an endless stream of books (and articles), but Covey, to his credit, was one of the first to hit the nail on the head.

‘It would be unfair to blame Covey for the amazing proliferation of personal development books over the past three decades,’ wrote Stefan Stern in MT 2 years ago. ‘The overloaded airport bookshelves are in a sense a tribute to the power of Covey's famous blockbuster, which has inspired countless inferior imitations.’

Covey’s time management matrix is a handy model-cum-thought process that can help render decision-making more efficient and time-effective. It’s split up into four quadrants that prioritise tasks as they pertain to importance and urgency. Importance for Covey relates to the achievement of goals long-term, with urgency designating what requires our immediate attention.

The four quadrants are as follows:

1. Urgent and important

The most obvious to spot and rightly the top of your to do list. Tasks include deadlines and important projects but also unexpected things that might require immediate attention. These are almost always unavoidable, but can often be reduced if planning is taken. A deadline might be urgent, but it could be less urgent if it wasn’t left until the eleventh hour.

2. Important and not urgent

This is the area that most of us pay the least attention to. Whilst not in need of immediate attention, these things require the most planning if we’re to reach our long term aims. These aren’t just limited to business, but also include personal goals such as hitting a weight target or learning a new language.

3. Not important and urgent

In business, things that fall into this category should be eliminated, or - if you have the luxury - delegated. Examples include interruptions like unnecessary phone-calls and other distractions that take us out of focussing on what’s important. The more of these things you take out of your life, the more efficient you will be.

4. Not important and not urgent

Netflix binges, falling down the Wikipedia rabbit hole, lazy weekend days in bed. This category can include wastes of time, but also valuable down-time. If you let this category dominate your day, you’ll never get anything valuable done, but if you strip it out altogether in the name of efficiency, your well-being could suffer. As with most things, it’s best to take in moderation.   

Most of our time goes into categories one and three, but Covey claims we need to spend more time on two, because it is our long term perspective that shapes how we manage our time in general. Being sure of strategy and having goals to aim for allows us to plan the short term.

Implementing this will require, as is to be expected, a bit of reflection and some old school to-do lists. Thinking about what makes up your day in terms of these four sections will clarify the areas that you should spend more time on, and those that you need to step away from. So they key to managing time effectively, Covey holds, lies in self awareness. The more we know about what is important to ourselves, the more productive we can be.

Image credit: Pexels

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