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Stephen Covey’s 2×2 Time Management Matrix

It’s easy to get bogged down with your growing task list when it seems you’re adding more than you’re accomplishing. As much as it’s difficult for me to admit, I continually have to remind myself that I simply cannot do everything every day. Sometimes, I just have to prioritize the most important tasks and know I’ve done my best. But how do we know which tasks are the most important? Productivity guru Stephen Covey, in his book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” explained a system to organize your tasks based on two criteria: urgency and importance. Working together, these two things create a grid where you can judge all incoming tasks to determine your next best step. It’s called the “Time Management Matrix”. It works like this: The top two sections are categorized in urgency, the bottom two in importance. Overwhelmed? Not sure what needs to get done first? Use a TM Matrix will help you evaluate your tasks based on priorities so you can choose the best thing.

URGENCY & IMPORTANCE

When you want to evaluate your tasks, you need to consider each of these for each task.   Urgency: Does the task have a deadline, or is it time sensitive? Something like “buy a wedding gift for Sarah” needs to be done by next Saturday, so you can bring it with you when you attend. But “clean out my closet”, though it may be very needed, doesn’t have to be done by a specific time. Importance: Does it really matter if you get this thing done or not? Or is it just a “want to” kind of task? In the above examples, let’s say that you’re not super close to Sarah (she’s a work colleague’s daughter) and if you don’t bring a gift, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. You still want to do it, but the importance factor has then gone down. And yet, “clean out my closet”, though not deadline driven, is still important because half of the clothes you own don’t fit anymore or are out of season- you need to purge some and store others away. This task has a higher importance level, but lacks urgency.

THE QUADRANTS

After determining the urgency & importance of each of your items, you combine your results to place each task in one of the four quadrants. Quadrant 1: Urgent & Important. These are tasks that are top priority. They include tasks that are high in both urgency & importance. Let’s say your son’s field trip permission slip is due on Friday- if you don’t get it in, he can’t go. Important, right? And the deadline is in 3 days- urgent? Definitely! This tells you that you need to do this task ASAP. Quadrant 2: Not Urgent & Important. These tasks are second priority. (See the pattern?) Cleaning out your closet goes here. Or spending time with family- important because it aligns with your life priorities and goals, but doesn’t need to be done by a specific time. Worst case scenario- if your day is filled up with all #1s, these #2s can usually be postponed to a later time. Overwhelmed? Not sure what needs to get done first? Use a TM Matrix will help you evaluate your tasks based on priorities so you can choose the best thing. Quadrant 3: Urgent & Not Important. Third in priority- these tasks only get completed after you’ve completed, or scheduled, quadrants 1 & 2. Because they’re not important, you have to decide if the time they’ll take to complete are worth the benefits of completing the task. (In financial terms, this is called “return on investment.” I like thinking of my tasks like that.) Often you’ll find you can eliminate some of these items, or delegate them to others. Quadrant 4: Not Urgent & Not Important: These tasks are often the ones we put there because we want to. Things like watching our favorite show on Netflix, or surfing Facebook. They’re things that we need to plan a little time for (in the interest of self-care & unwinding), but need to keep under control. Quadrant 4 is, you guessed it, lowest priority.

WHY THIS IS HELPFUL

For me, it’s really nice to visually see my tasks organized by priority, especially when I start to feel overwhelmed with so many of them. Often I find tasks that I think are important, but by forcing myself to place each task in a quadrant, I realize I can cut many of them out, simplifying my day. I have a huge problem with over-planning my time, but using this method of priority really helps me get a handle on what I really do have time to accomplish. I also really like how this forces me to triage my tasks before I add them to my list- I have to literally sit and evaluate each task before I write it down… to ensure I am placing it in the proper quadrant… no more doing #3s before all else! Note: I do combine this with a good “Brain Dump” to ensure all my thoughts are written down beforehand- that way I don’t forget anything while I’m prioritizing.

HOW TO PLAN YOUR TIME

Knowing that quadrant 1 items are top priority, you can probably guess that they really should be completed or planned first. That’s a no brainer. But do the rest fall exactly in line? (#2s, #3s and then #4s?) Well, not exactly. It’s important to create balance in your life, which you can do well, using this system. When planning your time, after you’ve planned all urgent & important matters, you want to sprinkle in a mixture of both 2s & 3s. After deciding to plan or eliminate the 3s, if you are going to do them, since they have deadlines, get them on the list. Since they’re lower priority, if they don’t end up happening exactly the way you want, you can feel guiltless about missing them. But if you’re anything like me, they definitely won’t happen if they’re not even on the list (and obviously before the deadline.)   So, to illustrate, I’m going to put the permission slip on my calendar first, since it’s due in 3 days and has high importance. Next, I’m going to plan to clean my closet on Saturday morning, since it I feel strongly it’s important for me right now. I’m going to plan on picking up Sarah’s wedding gift on Thursday evening after work (since I get off early that night), but if something happens, I’m not going to beat myself up about it. I’m also going to write in to watch a couple episodes of my favorite show this week- one on Wednesday night and one Sunday afternoon.   Don’t underestimate the importance of carving out some time for those 4s- guilty pleasures that you can use as rewards for a productive day, or as a tool to help you unwind from the stressful ones. Some call these “distractions” and urge you to avoid them- I know it’s important to let yourself indulge a little. Just be careful… only you know how much time is left in your schedule. Don’t waste it. I hope this has helped you see just how beneficial this can be to help you organize your growing task list… be sure to be honest with yourself when judging urgency and importance. If it helps you meet or progress you in your life goals, it’s probably important. And is each task actually as urgent as it seems? Try to eliminate as many things as possible… simplifying your list can help you exponentially in the long run.

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Looking for a simpler version of this process? There's an easy one included in my FREE course "Transform the Overwhelm: 7 Days to Peaceful Productivity"which you can sign up for now. Every day for a week you’ll receive detailed instructions, exercises, and support from me as you navigate your own list and work to transform those feelings of overwhelm into true productivity.

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