Time is constant. The amount of time we have in a day, week or year will never change. People say, “I don’t have time,” or “I need to find more time.” The fact is, you will never have more time than you do now. So the concept of time management is really a myth. You can’t steal minutes from one day and add them to another.
The only thing we can manage is what we do with our time. As best-selling author Stephen Covey said, “The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.” Most people fail at this, so they never have time for what is really important-not just in work, but also in life. A healthy work-life balance is critical for productivity, health and happiness.
In his best-selling book, “First Things First,” Stephen Covey created a time management matrix to help people prioritize how to spend their time. The tasks in each quadrant will be different for everyone but here is an example:
Quadrant 1: Urgent & important
Quadrant 2: Important but not urgent
Quadrant3: Urgent but not important
Quadrant 4: Not urgent or important
According to Covey, people spend most of their time in Quadrants One, Three and Four. Yet Quadrant Two is where we should all be spending most of our time. Time spent in Quadrant Two is necessary for work-life balance, fulfills our professional and personal goals, and fills our energy reserves.
Of course, every day a certain amount of time will have to be spent in Quadrant One. Emergencies happen and projects have to get done. But if you spend your entire day putting out fires, maybe you need to analyze how important some of those fires are. Are you spending too much time in Quadrant Three, believing that just because something is urgent, that it is also important?
Here are concrete steps to help you schedule your priorities, and then stick to that schedule:
1) Define three or four of your roles in life. For most people, their roles at work and with family are most important. But it’s important to include at least two other “roles” that are important to you personally, such as health or a personal goal. What makes you feel recharged and energetic? What goals do you have that you have been putting off for years?
2) Every week, write out two or three weekly goals related to each role. At work, it may be the completion of several deadline-driven projects. At home, it may be scheduling a date night with your spouse. For your personal or professional goal, it may be spending two evenings working on that instead of watching television. For health, it may be getting up an hour earlier three days a week so you can go the gym. Schedule time for at least one if not two goals per week for each role.
3) Your scheduled time blocks are now your top priorities for the week. Guard them with ferocity. Before you start a task, make a phone call or respond to an e-mail, ask yourself if this will help you accomplish one of your most important goals or tasks that day. Ask yourself what the consequences will be if you don’t respond to an email from a co-worker or even a boss until the end of the day. You can even shoot a quick email response such as “I am working on a high-priority project. I will get to this as soon as I can, but it may not be until tomorrow/next week.”
If you find yourself surfing on the Internet, just stop. That is a Quadrant Four distraction and can be re-scheduled. If a chatty co-worker stops your cubicle, you can be very nice while you say “You know what, I am in the middle of something really urgent, can I stop by later?” Then don’t. That co-worker will eventually get the hint. If you are invited to attend a meeting where your input is not critical, tell them you are working on a “very important” project and ask if someone can send you a summary. In short, learn to say “no” to any distractions, tasks or other time-suckers that come between you and your pre-scheduled tasks, and especially if they threaten the tasks that fall into the Quadrant Two category. Quadrant Two needs to be protected the most, because they are the tasks that we continuously put off, delay and never seem to get to; and as a result we feel stressed, depressed and unfulfilled.
4) Now, you probably don’t have much time left in the day for Quadrants Three and Four. That’s as it should be. But even within those quadrants, you can prioritize tasks. Schedule half an hour to respond to all non-urgent emails, and schedule half an hour to reply to all non-urgent phone calls. Batching similar tasks together and doing them at one time helps to increase efficiency.
When it comes to doing “first things first,” only you can decide which things are most important to you. It may take some time and practice, but the more time you can spend in Quadrant Two, the happier and more productive you will be.