Thinking Inside the Box

Written by Carol Walker

Time is a precious commodity for all of us. But just how aware are we of how we are managing it? Most of us in the throes of busy professional lives could benefit from putting a little structure around how we assess our priorities. One of the best resources for upgrading our thinking comes from Stephen Covey’s 80’s classic book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”. While the book is more focused on our personal lives, Covey’s Time Management Matrix is an invaluable tool for managers and leaders.

Habit #3 is: Put First Things First. It’s an idea that’s easy to agree with, but hard to implement in a workplace filled with constant distractions. Covey’s matrix encourages us to analyze what we spend our time on by categorizing our activities in a simple matrix of urgency and importance:

Urgent and important ideas.

Most leaders today spend virtually all their time in the boxes on the left side of the matrix. For those who argue they don’t spend time in the “urgent but not important” box, I’d encourage you to expand your definition of ‘not important’ to include activities that ‘don’t actually require my skillset and could be delegated’.

The important point of the matrix is how little time most of us spend in the upper right quadrant. These are the activities that are critical to our long-term success, but which don’t have immediate consequences when we don’t get to them. There’s often no deadline or clear deliverable associated with building a strong relationship or planning how to make your operation more robust in the face of new competition. It’s easy to put off these truly important but not urgent activities because no one notices they aren’t happening. Until they do notice.

Do yourself a favor and spend a little time sorting the activities of your typical week into Covey’s matrix. A little thinking inside the box–the upper right hand one–can go a long way.