Some days it’s so hard to get traction at work; we have started the day well with a to do list, it’s prioritised and away we go on the most important thing. Then a tsunami washes over us in the form of urgent tasks that just have to be done immediately. Stress levels rise and it seems that we have three choices, to drop everything and go with the urgent, delegate it to someone else,  or fight it off. It’s true that the important and urgent does need to be addressed, but if it seems to be happening regularly then it might be time to take a good hard look at what’s happening here.

Some people thrive on the adrenalin rush of a crisis and consciously or unconsciously leave everything to the last minute. Some aren’t confident of their approach and just procrastinate instead of seeking guidance, and others don’t seem to get themselves organised then panic when they become aware that the deadline is immovable and imminent.

Whatever the reason it damages relationships, increases stress levels and is really bad for your health in the long term. As eighteen-year-olds we might get away with  repeated all-nighters then sleeping it off afterwards but unfortunately as we get older we don’t recover as quickly, we can’t sleep it off because we have other responsibilities and our team becomes weary of this habitual cycle.

Stephen Covey in his seminal work, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, describes a matrix into which all our tasks can be divided.

1. In the matrix pictured above you’ll see that the most important and urgent tasks are in quadrant 1. These things absolutely cannot be avoided. The family emergency, the unplanned sudden career opportunity, or a client with an urgent need, for example, fall into this area. As John Lennon famously sang,

Life is what happens to you
While you’re busy making other plans

2. However if it’s a project, a report or something that requires a great deal of work then it is unlikely that it will be your very best work if it’s a rushed last-minute job. That should go into box 2. You need to plan ahead, work out realistically how long it will take, then break it down into regular, small, bite-sized chunks. If, for example, you are working on a report that really needs a month (or more) to write and research then you’d prepare a checklist of sub tasks, with a realistic time frame for each. Buying gifts for important people in our lives fall into this category too; last minute gifts are often not so appropriate and they cost more. It’s such a great feeling to be able to check things off a list. If you are not good at this then I suggest talking to someone who is, and ask them how they do it. There are plenty of good books and internet reasources on the subject. Other quadrant 2 activities include self care; exercise, sleep, good food, spiritual and mental rest. These are the things we tend to neglect when the quadrant 1 urgent things take over, but they are too important to ignore.

3. The tasks in quadrant 3, the urgent but not so important things may be more easily delegated to another person without the repercussions that may result from passing off the quadrant 1, urgent and important responsibilities. Typical urgent but not important activities include the ubiquitous phone calls and email. It’s easy to always be available for these but they can distract us from our important tasks. They can, however be batched into their own time slots. Some people find it’s better not to start the day with these, but to set aside brief periods in late morning or late afternoon, or at times that better suit our schedule.

4. Quadrant 4 activities are neither important not urgent. Perhaps they can be deleted from the to do list altogether or they may be recreational. Spending time on trivia, interruptions, pleasant activities, and social media might go here unless it’s part of your serious marketing campaign. We can easily waste time on activities in this quadrant because we enjoy them, and then our productive quadrant 2 activities become quadrant 1 crises. However if we spend an appropriate amount of time in the high priority areas then there will most likely be enough time for these low priority fun activities.

It’s not really about managing time at all; it’s really about managing ourselves and what’s really important. When we have a difficult task ahead of us it is tempting to allow ourselves to become embroiled in time-wasting activities instead of starting with the important task that ends up giving us greater satisfaction.

What are your thoughts? I’d love to see your comments.


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