What activities are stealing your time and taking your eye off the ball…

The differentiation between important and urgent can easily get blurred, especially when we’re caught up in the moment and everything seems important and urgent. But is that really the case?

In his book First Things First, Steven Covey came up with, what are now fairly well established distinctions, for the activities we undertake on a daily basis and splits them into four quadrants that we’re probably all familiar with:


So if we’re honest how much time do we spend in the various quadrants?

Do we spend more time in the ‘Urgent and Important’ quadrant because, when there was the time available to spend on planning and preparation, we didn’t spend on the ‘Not Urgent and Important’ activities? Of course there are occasions when we need to be in the ‘Urgent and Important’ quadrant as some things we just can’t plan for… but what about the time we spend in quadrants III and IV – where things aren’t important but we consider them to be urgent or we spend time on things that are neither important or urgent i.e. we are procrastinating or even taking the easy option?

Covey took his concept of the four quadrants even further and it becomes an even starker contrast, really shining the light on what’s happening when we’re in those bottom two quadrants.


So what difference does it make to our perception of how we spend our time when using this new set of descriptions? Considering instead of something being urgent but not important we think about it as spending time in the Quadrant of Deception? What difference does that make to our thinking about the activities? What is their real relevance to the business and or our clients?

It would be true to say that not everything in this quadrant might have the same low level relevance to say your clients or perhaps even to others in the business. And so potetnially requires some conversations and a better understanding for both parties.

The opposite side of the coin is that maybe those making the requests of you are doing so out of habit, or because they too are spending time, albeit unwittingly, in the quadrants of deception and waste.

Here are some considerations:

Is the meeting really necessary? What is the reason for the meeting and what’s the intended outcome? Could it be dealt with by phone? Is your attendance necessary or could the meeting happen just as well without you?

Is the report necessary… who is the report for? What is it going to be used for? Can the inforamtion be gathered in a different way? Does it have to be prepared by you? Would a conference call provide the same information?

Instead of creating a whole email chain would a quick call sort out the issue? You know that lost art of ‘pick up the phone’; don’t allow yourself or others in the organisaiton to hide behind emails.

Is something really pressing? Does act now make that much difference to the same activity being completed in 2 days time? Is the other person lacking confidence in themselves or others? Or is there a lack of understanding?

And what about the time is spent in the Quadrant of Waste? How many meetings, calls etc. take place where you know they’re of no real value or relevance to you, the business or your clients? Can you give polite but firm nos to people so that they don’t call or email back? After all its not only your time that’s being wasted but their’s too, so be honest.

How many activities are being done that are simply frittering away time such as using social media for personal use during the day, I’m not suggest don’t use it all but don’t keep it open and keep checking your timeline? Or time spent attending events because it’s nice to have a chat as opposed to events where you’ll meet people who want to do business with and start to make and nurture meaningful relationships?

The thing is at least 80% of our time should really be spent in II, Quadrant of Quality and Personal Leadership, as this is where the real business magic happens. Where we’ll make the most difference to the business and our clients. It’s not just about developing the strategies and the planning for the business but also where the planning and preparation of the client work takes place. Where we are at our most creative because we are in flow. And the more ‘upfront’ work that’s done in this quadrant then the less time that needs to be spent in the Quadrant of Necessity.

I’d challenge that all deadline driven projects, if they have been planned correctly and resourced appropriately, would be in that quadrant; it would only be if something quite doesn’t go as planned it or a true emergency.

So if we take this concept another stage further on… thinking about the double action priority list… where the first three activities for the day are prioritised 1, 2, 3; activity 1 completed and then the remaining items are reprioritised and the newly prioritised activity 1 is worked and so on… what if we were to also consider which quadrant each activity we prioritise fits into… if the activity is in the Quadrants of Deception or Waste then should it be done at all? And if so does it really have as high a priority as other activities?

If an activity has to be actioned because it’s in the Quadrant of Necessity then what could be done differently so that it’s in the Quadrant of Quality and Personal Leadership?

And what about prioritising activities such as going to the gym, time out with family, going to the children’s school plays? After all if we don’t nurture ourselves and those dear to us there will be knock on effects in the future. There is no such thing as a healthy business if the people working in and on the business aren’t healthy.

Mastering regular activities within time management is Covey’s fifth level of time management where recurring tasks become habits. And there’s a great article by Ken Krogue exploring the levels and some other habit mastery, which you might find interesting…

Covey also advocates that categorising every task into one of the four quadrants makes us far more mindful of the relevance and appropriateness of each activity and some have said it can make us 10x more productive; so in conjunction with the double priority action list and perhaps the Pomodorro technique how much more productive would you be?

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