Let’s talk about an effective time management strategy to help boost your productivity and reduce your stress. If you implement this strategy properly, you will find yourself doing much less while achieving much more.
My desperate hunt for an effective time management strategy
If you are experiencing a high level of stress jumping from one task to another trying to keep up with a never ending to-do list, you’re at the right place! Until a year ago, I had been in the same shoes desperately hunting for an effective time management strategy to rescue my days.
My work was extremely fast-pace and demanding. I was starting a more senior role, leading people and projects. We mostly worked with data and codes, which can be exciting and exhausting at the same time. Besides, there were regulations and strict deadlines for me and my team to make things happen.
For a straight half year, my days were often filled with rush, stress, expectations (from others), and disappointments. My list of urgent to-do tasks kept growing and growing while my energy was drained and my anxiety built up quickly through out the days and months.
I came home worn out everyday to find another long list of errands to run and things to catch up with. That happened even when I have a loving and helping Hubbie and no kids at home.
The most effective time management strategy I came across
Everything changed since I read “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen Covey, which I highly recommend if you want to be effective and successful in work and in life. Of the 7 habits, the one that most impacted me is habit #3: PUT FIRST THINGS FIRST.
It’s been one full year since I started implementing this habit. I’m still working the same fast-pace and demanding day job, holding the same senior role in my team, leading people and projects to meet regulations and strict deadlines.
I even take on a night job running this blog to share my passion in personal finance. Hubbie and I are also taking a culinary art course. To make life even more “fast and furious”, we are in the process of buying our first home. And trust me, buying a house in the Greater Toronto Area can be insanely hectic.
With all those activities, I still live my life and rest my mind to the fullness mostly thank to Covey’s habit #3: Put First Things First. Well, honestly the title doesn’t say much. But it contains the most effective time management strategy I’ve ever found.
The time management matrix
Priority matrix, also known as Eisenhower matrix or time management matrix, is a popular concept in time management. The concept is well-defined. However, there are more than one way people interpret and apply this matrix to manage their time. What is truly mind blowing for me is Covey’s application of the time management matrix as he shows in his book.
General concept of the time management matrix
Eisenhower, the 34th President of the United States (1953-1961), invented the urgent-important matrix to prioritize his many tasks. There are two factors defining an activity: urgency and importance. In the urgent-important matrix, there are 4 quadrants
Below are some typical examples of activities in each Quadrant.
- Quadrant 1: deadline-driven projects, last-minute changes, heart attack, car breakdown, burst pipes.
- Quadrant 2: planning, training, development, improvement, maintenance.
- Quadrant 3: interruptions, distractions, expectations (from others), some recurring meetings and reports.
- Quadrant 4: time-wasting activities, pointless perfectionism, procrastination.
How most people spend their time
A lot of time management advises tell people to focus their time and effort on Quadrant 1 – Urgent and Important. Quadrant 1 is thought to have the utmost priority.
It sounds just right. Urgent and important tasks require immediate attention. But Quadrant 1 activities are often related to crises, strict deadlines, and pressing problems. As Covey put it: “Quadrant 1 consumes many people”. As a result, they have to find relief in Quadrant 4, doing the not urgent and not important activities, which are usually pleasant and easy to do.
This is exactly how most people spend their time. They go to work dealing with urgent matters and stressful deadlines all day everyday. They go home facing even more pressing headaches: running out of food, kids getting sick, forgotten payments, car breakdown, leaking roofs, wet basement, etc.
Busy people don’t have time to think about what’s really important. They react with what’s urgent. All they were waiting for is some time off so that they can go to Quadrant 4, spending their time and money in pleasant activities such as watching TV, enjoying leisure time, going on vacations. And then, the next day when they are back to reality, the same cycle repeats.
Sometimes they spend their time in Quadrant 3, thinking they’re in Quadrant 1. But actually they are only solving urgent but not important problems. The urgency comes from priorities and expectations of other people, not from what is truly important to them.
How we should spend our time instead
Stephen Covey views the time management matrix from a unique angle. He actually called it “managing ourselves” not “managing time”. According to Covey, Quadrants 3 is to delegate and Quadrant 4 is to avoid completely. They are associated with not important activities, which don’t deserve our time and someone else can do these better.
Between Quadrants 1 and 2, Covey urges people to spend more time on Quadrant 2. It may sound counter-intuitive at first, but that is the true way to be highly effective in work and everyday life. I’ve tested this myself and it’s eye opening.
The curious case of Quadrant 2
Quadrant 2 contains activities that are not urgent but are important. Common time management strategies tell us these activities are not worth doing first because they are big time-consuming tasks. They don’t bring “quick wins” or “high impact low effort” and don’t deserve to “do first” as activities in Quadrant 1.
Quadrant 2 activities are often preparations or preventive, strategic, long-term planning activities. The reason we don’t do these is because they are not urgent, they take time, and we are occupied/consumed by a very legitimate Quadrant 1 of urgent and important issues.
We human tend to react to urgent matters. By being reactive, we don’t have time and mind for being proactive.
We seem to easily forget one key fact: if we focus on planning well, preparing and facilitating for good results to happen, and building strategic long-term goals, then at the end of the day, there are not many urgent-important things left to do.
It takes just one preventive and maintaining activity to effectively sweep away many urgent tasks resulted from not thinking ahead.
One more fact: it’s much less stressful working on Quadrant 2 compared to Quadrant 1. When we’re not pressured, we’ll be happier, more mindful, more creative, and able to see a bigger picture beyond the task at hand. Life and work can benefit tremendously from this.
What I did to switch focus from Quadrant 1 to Quadrant 2
Here are some examples of things that used to keep me busy, unproductive, or unhappy in Quadrant 1, and how I turned them into Quadrant 2 activities.
(used to be)
My team often face projects with extremely tight timeline and multiple complications that require exhaustive analyses.
|It took me quite some thinking and effort to automate our work processes as much as possible. Our autopilot system can now handle most analyses and help us save significant time on stressful repetitive work.|
|Work emails or requests that require immediate attention and resolution|
In busy time, I often received lots of these, to the level that I was even scared to open my work inbox every morning.
|After I started planning for the long term and building strategic relationship with other parties, the numbers of urgent requests I received decreased considerably.
For sure the improved communication and aligned work mission across multiple teams and departments play a big role here.
|Boss asking for on-spot opinions and urgent materials about random work related things |
Who doesn't want to be recognized by the boss as a pivot member of the team? But let's face it, who is eager to deal with tough on-spot technical questions or requests of materials of some thing you did months or years ago?
|I invest my time in learning as much as I can on the technical side of the job. I also organize my work really well so that it takes me almost no time to find anything.
I'm no longer pressured with fulfilling expectations from the boss. I now do all these because they are important to my personal development.
(used to be)
|Due dates for saving and payments (housing, utilities, credit cards, subscriptions, ...) |
These are the dates you can't miss if you want to keep your finances in check. The stressful thing is they happen to be different dates across the month.
|I automated all my savings and most of my payments. For credit card payments that I can't automate, I choose a single date in the month when all statements are ready. When the reminder rings, I just have to set up the payment for the corresponding balance on the corresponding due date, all at once. Nothing to remember and nothing to miss.|
|Running out of groceries/food or household supplies in the middle of a busy week||Hubbie and I are now very disciplined with our weekly meal planning and grocery shopping. We barely run out of groceries or food in the middle of the week. We also stock up household supplies to save big on costs and time.|
|Life/health crises and issues with loved ones||At home we always try to maintain a balanced diet, healthy lifestyle as well as constructive and loving conversations. We make the top priority to detect and resolve issues as soon as they bud out.|
If you focus only on Quadrant 1, it will get bigger and bigger until the pressure on you is unbearable.
Quadrant 2 is much less stressful, oftentimes even enjoyable. It drives your focus on personal growth and long term success while at the same time strengthens your mindfulness and empathy.
A similar priority matrix can be applied to spending money, not only spending time. The idea is to put your time, money, effort, and energy to strategic and long-term activities so that you can avoid impulse and urgent calls. Quick-fix solutions usually do more harm than good in the long run and create even more urgent issues for you to resolve.
Everytime you complete a Quadrant 1 activity, ask yourself what you can do next time to prevent this urgency and deliver a greater longer lasting impact. That’s your Quandrant 2 activity that you should focus on. Break it down to bite-size activities that you can plan and achieve. Sometimes we put off doing an important task just because it seems big and daunting. So break it down to baby steps. Focus on nothing else until you complete this Quadrant 2 activity.
I can guarantee you that not so long after you implement this effective time management strategy, the stressful and pressing issues will gradually disappear. You will find yourself doing much less while achieving much more. Don’t try to manage time. Manage yourself!
Now I leave this back to you. What do you think you can do today to focus on your Quadrant 2 and minimize your Quadrant 1?