Time Management: Key Learnings from Stephen R. Covey and How to Use the Urgent / Important Matrix

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There are a number of tools and techniques that can assist with managing time in more effective ways. All of them need to be viewed in line with the individual using them. 

This article covers a number of tools, and also a number of different views on time management. Read it with an open mind, and a continual asking of the question “How can this work for me?”

Stephen Covey’s Priority Model (Urgent / Important Matrix)

Stephen Covey is a great name for time management theory and tools.  His books “The seven habits of highly effective people” as well as “First things first” are both interesting reads and most people find something useful. 

Covey believes that the essence of best thinking in time management is to “organise and execute around priorities”.  The Goethe quote at the top of the page also features in Covey’s “The seven habits of highly effective people” book. 

It says that all tasks (whether business or personal) can fall into one of the four categories, and suggests we can prioritise our to-do list according to the model.

(To-Do lists can be written down, stored electronically or carried in our heads - and are often a mix of all three. I use the term to describe all those things that we decide we need to take action on)

An interesting point is that many people spend most of their time dealing with tasks that fall into boxes one (Urgent and Important) and three (Urgent and Not Important) and this leaves little time for those things that may not be Urgent - and that are Important. Our long term goals usually fall into box two!

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If a task really is Urgent and Important (box one), then there is probably good reason for completing it quickly.

Just be aware that:

  • It really is important
  • It really is important to you!
  • Tasks don’t fall into this category through procrastination or lack of planning

If a task falls into the Urgent and Not Important (box three) category, then delegate where possible, and again ask:

  • Is it really urgent?
    •  what are the consequences of not completing it?
    • what are the consequences of not completing it soon?

Tasks in this box are often those you’re completing for someone else…. i.e. they may be important to someone else, even if not to you. Be aware of your own values and your own motivation for completing these tasks. It may be that they need to move to box one – or box four!

Not Urgent and Not Important Tasks (box four) are an interesting set.  If a task falls into this box, then you really do need to ask what its value is!   Don’t be frightened to delete them when appropriate!  Also examine those tasks that have been on your to-do list with a box four priority for over six months … if there have been no unwanted consequences within six months, chances are it won’t be noticed if they get deleted!  

Those tasks that are Not Urgent and Important (box two) are the ones we should be paying attention to.  If we set ourselves medium to long term goals for any area of our life, the chances are the tasks will initially fall into this box – as will most tasks associated with personal development, new opportunities and improved relationships. The challenge is that the tasks in boxes one and three are shouting the loudest (or the person who set the tasks is!) and therefore we tend to concentrate on quietening the urgency rather than focusing on a steady path to success.

I believe there are several reasons for this …

The adrenalin rush associated with Urgency!

This is another of Covey’s ideas, found in his book “First things first” and is designed to fit with the priority model.  Covey isn’t saying that urgency is wrong, simply that if we are focusing on those things that are urgent, we aren’t necessarily focusing on those things that are important.  It’s all too easy to get caught up in the day to day “doing” and forget about the reasons why.  Have you got the correct balance?   Remember to continually check if something really does need to be completed and consider the reasons why.

There are also those of us that thrive on an approaching deadline! It can be more exciting to work long and late to achieve a task … it can also have a marked impact on stress levels.  Do you schedule tasks with plenty of time, only to find they get put off until the deadline is fast approaching?  If so, ask yourself what might be the reason for that?  What benefit does it give you?  Be honest with yourself … whilst that adrenalin rush can boost short term performance, there aren’t many people who continually give of their best under pressure. 

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Completed  : The need to cross things off the To-do list!  

How many of us get pleasure from crossing an item off our to-do list?  Whether that’s a written list, electronic list or the pleasurable sigh when we can simply forget all about something once it’s completed.   

It’s said that we write things down in order to forget them … and it’s easy to see that if we continually carried all outstanding tasks around in our heads, there would be very little room for processing anything else.  After all, the average person can only hold seven (+/- 2) things in their conscious mind at any one time – and I bet if you’re still reading this, your to-do list is longer than seven!  

The challenge with this psychological delight in crossing things off our lists is that we tend to work on the short term things first …. If you spend half a day in box one or three, chances are you may be able to tick several items off your list – the same half a day spent on a box two item may result in no ticks at all … and where’s the fun in that?! 

If you relate to that, ask yourself how else you can reward yourself for completing part of a longer term task?  Can you break it into sub tasks or into hourly components?  Think about what would work for you - and remember ..

..you can only eat an elephant a bite at a time!

"Eating elephants" is a phrase coined by a company called Time Management International. They have been running time management courses since 1975, and produce a whole raft of products designed to help people manage their time more efficiently.   The idea behind eating elephants a bite at a time translates to our medium to long term goals.  If we can tackle them a piece at a time, then they don’t seem as daunting – and we can tick the smaller activities off our to-do list!

What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments!


Alison Richardson (1 review ) Business Coach, Executive Coach, Career Coach, Love & Relationships Coach

Want to be listened to with compassion and a real belief in you? Known as inspirational & energetic with a genuine interest in people, I’ll challenge you to new ways of thinking and enable sustainable change and s... Read more