You probably waste far more time than you realize—almost all of us do. What most people have in common, no matter their profession, is that they commonly prioritize the tasks that shout the loudest over those that are actually the most important. According to a six-year global study of 351,000 people, over 40% of time in the workplace is spent carrying out tasks that ultimately don’t matter. Put another way, nearly half of all our time is misplaced and we have a huge opportunity to refocus it on something more valuable. Among other strategies, the time management matrix can help us make better use of our time.
When you’re really busy at work, rushed off your feet with tasks, it’s easy to overlook the distinction between what’s “important” and what’s “urgent”. These two words often seem interchangeable, but there’s a big difference between them—and this difference forms the crux of the time management matrix, which is commonly coopted as the Eisenhower Matrix. This matrix is basically a way of figuring out what you should be doing, and of learning to approach your commitments more consciously, something President Eisenhower was known to do very well.
It’s in our nature to prioritize urgent tasks. When we know a deadline is looming, our reactive brain kicks in; we put all our energy into completing something simply because it’s “urgent”, and then are rewarded with a brief hit of dopamine for our efforts. But when that wears off, we realize we’ve spent the whole day doing things that don’t really matter. US educator and businessman Stephen Covey understood this “urgency addiction”, and to help identify what’s truly important versus what’s urgent, he created his time management matrix.
According to the matrix, everything we do in life can be sorted by both its urgency and its importance. This creates the following matrix:
As you can see, the top two quadrants are what we should be focusing on—they’re “important”. But we should also be trying to minimize Q1 (important and urgent) as much as possible. This quadrant deals with unforeseen issues—unexpected yet pressing problems—but if we spend enough time in Q2, we should minimize the amount of urgent tasks we have to deal with.
Q2 is all about proper planning—about putting the necessary time in before things become urgent. This is the quarter we should be prioritizing, since doing so will help us be more effective in our work and minimize bad work stress. So how do we make time to do this?
If we want our work to sit mostly in “important and not urgent”, we first need to identify our highest-priority tasks. The whole objective of Covey’s time management matrix is to encourage us to question whether a certain task helps us achieve our goals or not. Reorganize your To-Do list based on the grid above, which will allow you to instantly identify which tasks need your immediate attention and which are most important.
How to prioritize your work
Once you’ve identified which tasks are truly important, the next step is to create more undisturbed space for working on them —to free up time for undisturbed, prolonged focus and organize your schedule thoughtfully to make sure you give most of your time to them. Consider using time blocking to create regular sessions for immersive deep work, as well as limit the amount of time you allow yourself to spend on low-value, unimportant tasks like daily email management.
To free up more time for Q2 work, you also need to reduce the time you spend in Q3 and Q4. Work that’s not important but urgent can include tasks like meeting scheduling, time tracking and replying to emails. While much of this work is unavoidable, a great deal of it can be partly automated or completely outsourced. Use smart tech to limit the impact of this work on your day—in particular, check out apps that can prioritize your inbox, track your time automatically and schedule meetings intelligently.
Q4—things that are not important and not urgent—should ultimately be eliminated entirely, or at least reserved for when you need a quick deep break from cognitively demanding work. Anti-distraction apps are a great help for ensuring these types of task don’t colonize your time or interrupt you when you’re trying to focus. They can even help you manage your biggest self-distracting behaviors, blocking certain websites or limiting your non-work related browsing each day.
As your schedule becomes more intentional and well proportioned, you’ll find that the time you spend doing Q1, Q3 and Q4 work should gradually decrease, freeing up more time for you to spend on the things that actually matter.