One of the greatest lessons I learned during my career as an IT Director was Stephen Covey’s 3rd habit to “put first things first”. Within this habit, aimed at effective time management, your tasks are divided across the four quadrants of a 2 x 2 matrix to analyse where you are spending your time. You can then make informed decisions about your priorities. This decades-old time-management strategy can really help you become more productive and less stressed at work.

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The first axis of the matrix is “urgent” vs “non-urgent” and the other is “important” vs “not important”. This results in the following four quadrants:

1. “Urgent and Important”: These are tasks which must be attended to right now. They can be procedural in nature but quite often can also be unexpected emergencies and crises. They always have to be performed quickly under significant time pressure but rarely deliver significant value.

2. “Not Urgent and Important”: These are the strategically important, value-adding activities which are the most critical to you and your organisation. It is here where innovation is both fostered and delivered and where real insights are gained. This the quadrant where you should seek to spend as much of your time as possible.

3. “Urgent and Not Important”: These tasks are usually reactive, and are often supporting other people’s priorities. They can also be tasks which are really unimportant but are given priority simply because they are urgent.

4. “Not Urgent and Not important”: These tasks should be at the bottom of your priority list and while other tasks remain unfinished, should not be performed. They are unproductive ‘time fillers’ which do not deliver anything of strategic value.

Quadrant 1, or “Urgent and Important”, is where most of the stress is located. These tasks are usually beyond your control and performed under significant pressure. This is the quadrant of illness and burnouts. Spending a large proportion of your time here increases your chances of becoming seriously unwell.

Quadrant 3, “Urgent and Not Important”, is the quadrant where often you will be performing tasks which are important to others rather than yourself, and whilst they can be useful for networking and relationship building they are not really helping you to achieve your objectives. So, too much time spent here will use time unproductively, affecting your overall performance and hence increasing your stress levels.

Quadrant 4, “Not Urgent and Not important”, is a quadrant to absolutely avoid. This quadrant is the realm of the disorganised and powerless. Spending time in this quadrant risks making you totally ineffective and eventually demoralised and detached.

However, quadrant 2, “Not Urgent and Important”, is where you are in control and have time to focus effectively on the tasks that deliver real value for your organisation. Within this quadrant are your strategic priorities, the business critical projects and other activities that are strategically important. It is the quadrant that builds self-confidence, reassurance and success. It is therefore the healthiest quadrant by far.

So my advice to you is, both for time management and your health, to use Covey’s 3rd habit of “Putting first things first” to ensure you are spending your precious time most effectively and most healthily.

And once you have mastered this, you can use the time and space that this generates to work on Covey’s 7th habit “Sharpen the saw” to focus on proactively improving your health. This habit was originally described (very wisely) by Covey himself as “Take time out from production to build production capacity through personal renewal of the physical, mental, social/emotional, and spiritual dimensions. Maintain a balance between these dimensions”.

The world of work is very different to the 1950’s when this matrix was first developed. Our work lives are more competitive and much busier.  But despite the changes, much stays the same and this framework is the best way by far for you to maximise your personal performance and avoid serious illness in the long-term.

What techniques do you use to plan ahead for big projects, to deal with the everyday work load and how are they making a difference to you and your health?