How to Manage Your Time and Focus on What’s Really Important

If you find yourself each day, week and month with a list of tasks and activities that you wanted to do, but never got round to, you are probably managing your time incorrectly. It is possible that you are focusing purely on tasks that are urgent, instead of those that are important. Stephen Covey popularized the concept of the Four Quadrants of Time, which broke tasks and activities down as follows:

Stephen Covey Time Management Matrix

Stephen Covey Time Management Matrix

You should be spending your time, energy and effort on Quadrant 1 and 2, devoting less time to Quadrant 3, and even less to Quadrant 4; you should never be concerned if you don’t ever get to Quadrant 4.

Even though tasks in Quadrant 2 are not urgent, they are important, and that is key in time-management. Important, but not urgent, activities include maintaining and improving yourself, your relationships, your home and restoring balance in your life.

Quadrant 3 activities are generally interruptions – phone calls, emails, non-important meetings – that steal time from important activities. Because they are labeled as urgent, it is too easy to get stuck in Quadrant 1 and 3, completely neglecting Quadrant 2.

An exercise to manage your quadrants, as suggested by Stephen Covey, calls for the following:

  • Using a stack of notecards, record one thing on each card that you should do, hope to do, want to do, or just dream of doing. Don’t impose any limits or restrictions; all of your ideas and goals should be written down.
  • Once you have finished, you will split the cards into two groups: those activities that are urgent and those that aren’t.
  • Finally, divide the cards again using ‘important’ and ‘not important’ as qualifiers. You should now have four stacks that resemble the Four Quadrants of Time.
  • Tackle all the activities that are urgent and important first; once you have completed those you can then take on your stack of tasks that are important, but not urgent. Rather than have someone else tell you what is important, you have decided for yourself, and then managed those according to your own assessment of urgency.
  • The two stacks of activities that you decided where not important are exactly that, completely unimportant and worth any time. Now that you have labeled them as such you can begin eliminating them from your schedule completely.

You Can Do It!

This exercise will challenge you in the beginning, as you will be aiming to break existing patterns, form new habits, and most difficult of all, exclude what is important to other people from your decision making. Your ‘important’ stacks are always made up of what has bearing on your life, not that of other people, and this is often the hardest habit to break. To make the transition easier, focus on gradually eliminating the ‘not important’ activities from your life. You can do this by committing to doing one activity that is important, but not urgent, for every activity you feel is urgent, but not important. Pay attention to how you feel after each activity, and what you should notice is that the important activities always leave you feeling good. This emotional reward, or sense of achievement, will make letting go of unimportant activities simpler, and eventually each day will be that much more enjoyable and enriching. Your work is important, but so is your family and your health, and what you are looking for is a measure of balance where you focus only on the important activities relating to all three spheres.

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