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It's About Time

Why is it that some Fridays find us feeling proud of our productivity, while other weeks we barely make it to Wednesday before the completion anxiety kicks in? Sometimes the interruptions come in waves and fires pop up with alarming frequency. All of your best people call in sick, your voicemail fills up, and your inbox piles high.

And sometimes, we're simply unaware of the ways we’re spending our time.

Psychologist Nathaniel Branden says, “The first step toward change is awareness.” If you can relate to the scenario above, the first step to changing the outcome of the week is becoming more aware of the activities to which you devote your valuable time.

Stephen Covey teaches a principle of time management in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People that centers on this idea: organize and execute around priorities. To determine what our priorities should be, he offers up a model called the Time Management Matrix in which any given activity can be categorized into four quadrants.

Coveys 4Q model Activities can be bucketed into one of these four quadrants:

              Quadrant 1: Urgent and Important

              Quadrant 2: Not Urgent and Important

              Quadrant 3: Urgent but Not Important

              Quadrant 4: Not Urgent and Not Important

Any given activity can fall into more than one quadrant, depending on the circumstances. For example, replying to emails may fall into Quadrant 1, though others easily fall into Quadrant 3. The key to increased productivity (and the resulting decreased stress) is spending more time on activities that are a priority.

Regardless of your familiarity with this model, you can probably guess that we should be spending most of our time on the top half of that graphic – on activities that are important. Covey suggests that our priorities should fall into Quadrant 2 (important and not urgent), because in this space we can curate better outcomes and because Q1 activities, though they are important, can still lead to stress, burnout, and the need to constantly put out fires.

Covey argues that the most effective leaders don’t spend any time in Quadrant 3 or Quadrant 4. Unimportant tasks are either discarded or delegated to someone else. This can be extremely difficult in practice — but possible with a little pre-planning.

Planning ahead (and adhering to the plan you made!) is the key to spending more time in Quadrant 2. Quickly categorizing tasks into quadrants and deciding on whether to do them is a skill that takes practice. The Time Allocation Activity linked below is a baby step toward growing this skill. This activity is designed to introduce you to the concepts of the Time Management Matrix and teach you how to implement it practically.

In this activity, you will take stock of your calendar, categorizing the tasks you did last week into a quadrant. Not every activity will fit neatly into just one category, but tracking and acknowledging (roughly) how you spent your time will generate awareness. And remember, awareness is the first step toward change.

Download the Time Allocation Activity


Bethany Bremer is an Associate Consultant at Insight Experience, a Boston-based firm delivering contextually rich business simulations and learning experiences to accelerate and integrate leadership, business acumen and strategy execution.

Bethany Bremer
Bethany Bremer
Bethany loves looking for potential in people and processes and developing that potential for lasting impact. You can find her on any given weeknight reading, running, or baking sourdough bread.