‘Discipline is the whole key to being successful. We all get 24 hours each day. That’s the only fair thing: it’s the only thing that’s equal. What we do with those 24 hours is up to us.’ Sam Huff, American footballer
‘The only equality that exists on earth is time. We all have exactly 24 hours in a day. How we choose to spend those hours is what separates us.’ Jerod Kintz, author.
The above quotations say it all. Yet there is something else we all have in common; when it comes to time and the tasks we have to do, we all tend to do the most urgent things first. We assume that urgent = important. As Steven Covey shows so eloquently in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, urgent does not equal important. So many of us spend our lives in a frenzy of activity driven by what is urgent, rarely getting to the tasks required to achieve the important things.
The Quadrant System
The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People was published in 1989, but its ideas are as relevant now as they were 32 years ago. The quadrant system of organising the tasks of each day was popularised through this book. According to this system, tasks may be arranged on a quadrant showing important tasks on one axis, and urgent tasks on the other. Tasks will fall into one of four categories: Important and urgent, important but not urgent, urgent but not important, and not urgent or important.
(Interestingly, the quadrant system of organising tasks was in fact first developed by President Dwight Eishenhower and was popularised by Steven Covey.)
The thing to remember is that important tasks contribute to the achievement of our goals, while urgent tasks require immediate attention, and are very often linked to someone else’s goals. Covey urges that we learn to recognise which of the four quadrants our tasks fall into. This way, we can deal with each in the way most appropriate to the task.
Quadrant 1: Important and Urgent
These tasks require your immediate attention and input.
Quadrant 2: Important and not Urgent
This is the quadrant for long-term thinking – planning, preparation and crisis prevention. This is where you strategise, organise and develop new ideas. We omit this category of activities at our own peril!
Quadrant 3: Urgent but not Important
These are tasks with a high urgency but little importance, and they should be minimised, delegated or avoided as far as possible.
Quadrant 4: Not urgent or important
There is no value in these time-wasting tasks and distractions, and we should avoid these at all costs. I wonder how much of our days we spend on these sorts of activities?
Where do your tasks lie?
If you think about the things that you do in a day, you will probably find that you spend most of your time on tasks in quadrants 1 and 3, and neglect quadrant 2 – especially when it comes to your personal development.
Covey stresses the importance of quadrant 2 tasks, as this strategic thinking will be what benefits you in the long run. The more work we do in quadrant 2, the smaller we make the quadrant 1 list over time.
This is because a large portion of the items in quadrant 1 could have been foreseen, and by developing plans and closely monitoring how they are executed, the tasks can be completed without urgency.
Quadrant 2 tasks include not only strategising and planning, but also taking care of your health, education, exercise, and long-term goals. Neglecting these areas today can lead to serious consequences in the long term. Make sure that you schedule enough time to prioritise quadrant 2.
How will you apply the quadrant system?
When considering where a task might fall in the quadrant system, ask yourself whether completion of the task will bring you closer to your goals or not. If it does, that task needs to be prioritised over tasks that demand your time but don’t contribute to your goals.
You can apply the quadrant system to your to-do list in one of two ways:
- Reorganise your to-do list into the quadrants, and then action them accordingly.
- Weekly assessments – this will help you to get an idea of what you are truly doing in a day. Print 6 blank copies of the quadrants, and at the end of each day fill in what you have done in the relevant quadrant, as well as how much time you spent on it. At the end of the work week, use the 6th sheet to summarise the amount of time you have spent working in each quadrant.
From there, you can evaluate weekly how well you spent your time, and what you would like to do differently in the week ahead.
If you would like some additional tips and advice on how to manage your time, you can listen to our podcast on time management.
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