I’m a few months into my new job things are going well. The work is very similar to what I’ve been doing in school the past two years, with slight variations. Instead of being concerned with just my work, I now have a team of people, which I’m responsible and I have to track their tasks and due dates as well as my own. There are also some issues with budgets, schedules, and stakeholders. For the most part it’s not entirely dissimilar a lot of research and writing and having to synthesize a lot of points to try and get a message or an idea across to an audience.
However, one thing that remains the same is a strict need for time management, which also means keen awareness of prioritizing everything has to be done. In school everything was a top priority papers, readings, and assignments all clamored for my attention. It was very easy to shut out everything else and just move from one subject to the next. Now I have to get back to a more traditional sense time management and prioritization so I turn to a trusted tool that I would like to reintroduce and share with you.
Some call this the Eisenhower time management tool as it was the preferred method of the former Supreme Allied Commander and American President. Many others know it as the Four Quadrants, or Quadrant II, approach as presented by Stephen Covey in his groundbreaking book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. It is a very simple tool to help determine what needs to be done right now, what can be delegated, where your focus should be, what needs to be done but can be put on hold, and what to flat-out avoid.
The first step is to draw a large square with four squares inside it. The matrix’s left vertical axis represents a continuum of Urgent vs. Non-Urgent, with the former being on the top and the latter on the bottom. Across the top of the matrix is a continuum of Important vs. Non-Important, with the former on the left and the latter on the right. Going from left to right, the top two squares are numbered I & II, and the bottom squares are III and IV. (You can also use 1, 2, 3, and 4, or A, B, C, and D, whatever suits you.) It should look like this when you are done:
Quadrant I represents Urgent and Important tasks that have to be done right now. I like to call these “hair on fire” items. Not only should they take precedent over everything else, you should find opportunities to delegate them where you can to get them done more quickly. There is nothing wrong spending time on this quadrant but the risk of spending all of your time in this quadrant is burn out and a sense of being subject to outside forces you do not control.
Quadrant III, Urgent and Non-Important, is a very time-wasting area often impacted by others. Things sometimes arrive on my desk because someone else failed to plan or act accordingly. Its resolution is urgent but, at least as it pertains to my work, it is not very important. Inevitably an unforeseen question or issue arises that has to be dealt with and you may be the only resource that can resolve it. Fair enough. Handle it but then move on. Spending too much time in this area puts you too much at the mercy of other people-handling crisis you neither wanted nor created.
Quadrant IV is probably the easiest one to work with. It is nothing but wasted time like watching TV or mindless internet surfing. Simply put: do not do this, or at least severely moderate it.
Quadrant II should be your wheelhouse. Focusing here allows you to accomplishment things that contribute to your longer-term goals and objectives. It is also the place to schedule tasks and to-dos that can contribute to your long-term relationships. Buying a card for a loved one’s upcoming birthday might not be urgent but it is important, so prioritize it. The more your day or week is devoted to activities in this space, the more you will feel in better control of your life.
One caveat: the tool is only as good as your level of discipline for using it. When it was first introduced to me I used it and saw good progress. Eventually, though, I fell back into a pattern of crisis management and lack of efficient time management because I did not have a pattern or discipline around using it at the top of every week. It took a good six to nine months before it became an ingrained part of my Sunday evening/Monday morning. I have had to adjust it given the varying circumstances of life (eg: full-time job is different than volunteer high school teacher is different than graduate student, etc.). But with some small adjustments it can be fitted to the circumstances in which you find yourself.
If you want to know more about it, definitely pick up Covey’s book and do some more research online. You can also click here and download a free (but incredibly crude) Excel file that allows you to enter various activities in the four quadrants and it populates the matrix for you. You will be amazed at how much time you feel you have reclaimed in your life. Though, to be fair, we all have the same amount of time in a week. It’s all a matter of prioritizing it all correctly. As always, if you have questions about this or want to discuss it further, you know where to find me.