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Covey’s Four Quadrants Of Time Management: Fundamentals

Let’s look at Stephen Covey’s Four Quadrants of Time Management, an eye-opening productivity tool that’ll help you rethink your time and decide how to direct your energy to what matters most. It’s useful for work, play, social life, and you’ll bring all of these together, reorganising your entire life around fundamental principles of your choosing. You might just get a glimpse of what’s behind your floundering results or lack of fulfilment.

We’ve got a lot to cover, so let’s get right into the four quadrants of time management.

Covey’s Four Quadrants Of Time Management

We’ll cover each of the four quadrants of time management before diving deeply into how we can use them to be more effective and fulfilled.

It sounds like a pretty complex idea, but don’t let the name deceive you. At the core, this is a simple way to divvy up your daily tasks into four piles based on two factors: Urgency and Importance.

Urgency means short-term deadlines and impending tasks. But don’t confuse it with importance! Important tasks are those that are critical to our project, life or well-being. Just ask of everything you do: “Is this urgent?” “Is it important?”, and your task will fall into one of the quadrants.

Here are the four quadrants of time management.

crises, pressing problems, deadline-driven projects, meetings
preparation, prevention, planning, relationship building, true recreation, empowerment
interruptions, some mail and phone calls, some meetings, proximate pressing matters, popular activities
trivia, busywork, some mail and phone calls, time wasters, escape activities, excessive TV

Some Urgent tasks are worthy of our attention; others are not. That an item is calling us to act doesn’t imply that we ought to act. Stephen Covey claims this is our biggest productivity-related mistake: we confuse Urgency with Importance, thus diverting all our time to Q1 and Q3, abandoning the vital Q2.

We’ll get to Urgency Addiction. For now, let’s look at the quadrants in a little more detail.

Quadrant 1: Urgent, Important

This quadrant includes all your tasks that are both urgent and important – short-term, impending issues that are critical to the success of your project. They’re unavoidable. We either attend to them or suffer the consequences.

Quadrant 2: Not Urgent, Important – Quality, Personal Leadership

This is a critical but often-neglected quadrant. It includes all your tasks related to medium- to long-term strategy. This looks like long-term planning, anticipating and preventing problems, empowering others, broadening your mind, and CPD. The time we spend here increases ability to act in all the other four quadrants of time management – Covey likens Q2 time to sharpening a saw.

Quadrant 3: Urgent, Not ImportantDeception

This isn’t called the Quadrant of Deception for nothing. Urgency creates an illusion of importance and fools us into thinking we’re in Q1. In fact, when we spend all our time with Urgent tasks, we’re apt to slide from Q1 to Q3, forever busy with secondary tasks.

Quadrant 4: Not Urgent, Not ImportantWaste

We shouldn’t spend any time here, but we often slide into this quadrant after lots of time in Q1 and 3. Think of this as dead time; it’s not even leisure time. While it may disguise itself as such, it serves no purpose. It drags us down and wastes our energy. You can judge your own schedule for yourself – Covey suggests that mindless TV and gossiping fall into Q4. I’ll add endless phone scrolling and unfulfilling free time.

Let’s look at Urgency addiction, one of the biggest traps we face in our lives.

Urgency Addiction

That’s right, urgency is addicting. While it feels pressured, tense and stressful, it’s also exhilarating. We feel useful, successful, validated and needed. This is because brings instant gratification and visible results.

Covey makes it plain that we get a temporary high from solving problems, so we are drawn to doing urgent things just to keep moving. In fact, it’s a status symbol: if we’re busy, we’re important; if not, we’re nobody. Busy means in demand, regardless of what’s keeping us busy.

Listen to Covey’s powerful thoughts on this vice:

urgency addiction is a self-destructive behaviour that temporarily fills the void created by unmet needs.

Stephen Covey

Sure, we need to be in Q1 – else our project comes falling to the ground. However, a focus on the immediate and impending means we’re apt to slide into Q3. Before we know it, we’re filling up our time with meaningless tasks which aren’t worthy of our attention, neglecting Q2 in the process.

Signs of Urgency Addiction

Are you addicted to Q1 and Q3? Here are the prime symptoms of urgency addiction:

  • you do your best work under pressure
  • you blame the rush of external events for the lack of time with yourself
  • you get frustrated by the slowness of those around me
  • you feel guilty when taking time off
  • you rushing around from task to task
  • you push people away and give up quality time to finish projects
  • you feel anxious when away from workplace
  • the adrenaline rush is more important than long-term results
  • you rely on solving crises to give meaning to life
  • you eat lunch while working
  • you constantly multitask

So how much does this stuff dominate your life?

Know that even if we’re not addicted to the immediate, either urgency or importance tends to dominate our daily thinking. Problems come when we work from paradigm of urgency rather than paradigm of importance. It’s a temporary painkiller: it relieves some of the pain arising from obligations while ignoring what’s behind them.

Urgency thinking and importance thinking are like difference between prevention and treatment paradigms in medicine. With the former, the pain persists and the underlying symptoms remain untreated.

And each of the two factors has its own feeling. Urgency tends to feel like being stressed out, used up, unfulfilled, worn out. On the other hand, Importance tends to feel like confident, on track, fulfilled, meaningful. And the sad part of all this is that we tend dedicate insufficient time to Important tasks.

Further Thoughts On Urgency & Importance

I see parallels between this model and Robert Greene’s concept of the short-sighted perspective. Greene claims that we spend most of our time reacting to what’s going on around us, making short-term decisions based on limited information, and attending only to what is most salient and attention-grabbing. This is Urgency to a tee.

Looking at life from a wider perspective, I believe most ordinary people fall into short-sightedness and Urgency when structuring their entire life. Our tendency is to focus on solving immediate problems – the bills, daily obligations, fulfilling others’ expectations – and forget about the big questions. We don’t nurture nascent interests, strategise, or think about what we really want from life. We’re too lost in doing to step back and question what we’re doing and why.

We run around like this for 20 or 30 years, attending to demands imposed on us from others, until we realise our life feels stale and devoid of meaning. But how could it be another other way? We were so busy in Q1 and Q3 that we never nourished our Q2. It’s quite simple – we’ve not sown the seeds, so we’ve nothing to harvest.

It’s time to start connecting with what’s Important, with Quadrant 2.

Connecting With Quadrant 2 Productivity

In the process of re-evaluating our schedule to align it more closely with Important, Non-Urgent tasks, we must ask ourselves some fundamental questions. To my mind, these are the questions we should ask ourselves every day, not once per year. They should form the backbone of all our efforts.

To wit:

  • what’s most important?
  • what gives your life meaning?
  • what do you want to do and be?

Seems so stupidly simple, right? And it is – why wouldn’t you build your life around your personal vision? To do otherwise would be a harebrained strategy for happiness.

Having clarity on these questions affects everything else in your life, from goals to major decisions to career choices to leisure time. Once we start scheduling activities that are aligned with these priorities, things start conspiring in our favour. We feel more authentic, driven by a higher purpose, and sense a deeper underlying unity to our lives.

Let’s get the wheels in motion:

  • which one regular activity would effect remarkable positive change in your personal life?
  • which one regular activity would effect remarkable positive change in your professional life?

Take a moment to conjure up the most powerful activities you can imagine. And now put them into one of the four quadrants of time management.

You see, these sorts of activities usually fall into Q2. They’re Important, but not Urgent, so we tend to ignore them. In doing so, we cast aside our biggest opportunities for growth in our personal and professional lives.

The trick with these habits is that we have to prioritise them ourselves. This is because Q2 material comes from within. Nobody puts it on your desk expecting it back for day’s end. You must take the initiative.

My Productivity And Covey’s Four Quadrants of Time Management

I’ve witnessed first-hand how easy it is to confuse importance with urgency. I often get lost in doing small, easy tasks that let me tick boxes but eat into time spent into actually growing my business and acquiring skills. Focusing on Importance helps me put more time towards high-leverage tasks that take me closer to my goals.

Contacting Q2

What I love about Covey’s taxonomy is that it gives me permission to take a step back from the day-to-day hustle and bustle, and rest in the bigger questions surrounding my life, such as: “Why am I working on this project?”, “Is this fulfilling me?”, “Is this bringing beauty to the world?”, “Is this helping me reach my goals?”, “Which tasks do I need to pay more attention to?”

Sometimes I guilt myself when I take an hour to contemplate these bigger questions. But in a purpose-driven project like The Great Updraft, they are simply crucial. So I can’t lose touch with them, else I’m blind to the bigger picture behind everything I’m doing, eating away at my passion and motivation for the work.

Reframing Leisure With Covey’s Four Quadrants of Time Management

I’m also interested by how Covey treats leisure. On first reading, it might seem that he’s suggesting that leisure is a waste of time. But this is a mistake. Notice that in Q2 he includes “true recreation”, implying that leisure can descend into Q4 activity that serves no function other than to numb our mind, but that high-quality leisure is crucial for our well-being and success. This invites us to ask whether our leisure time is having its desired effect and to re-engineer it to our benefit.

My downtime might look like Q4 to you, while to me it’s Q2, and vice versa. Like the other four quadrants of time management, it’s person-specific. Free time spent with no intentional purpose is also crucial. We can’t be working all day every day, engaged in nothing but obligatory tasks.

It’s time to make more time for those high-leverage habits and routines that will bring change in your personal and work life. If you enjoyed this article, make sure you check out my other articles on productivity – starting with this one.

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