Karen Darrin

When it comes to being efficient, Stephen Covey’s time management matrix (originally called “The Eisenhower Matrix” after President Dwight Eisenhower) makes it easy to figure out what you “need” to be doing with your time and attention. Covey is the author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

I came across these principles as I was studying what separated highly productive people from everyone else:  how were they able to prioritize their work quickly, and get the most done? It has been years since I first saw this matrix and it remains a favorite time management tool:

Source: Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

The matrix distinguishes between importance and urgency:

  • Important responsibilities contribute to the achievement of your goals.
  • Urgent responsibilities require immediate attention. These activities are often tightly linked to the accomplishment of someone else’s goal. Not dealing with these issues will cause immediate consequences.

Here’s a summary of each quadrant:

  • Quadrant I – important deadlines with high urgency
    The first quadrant contains tasks and responsibilities that need immediate attention.
  • Quadrant II – long-term development and strategizing
    The second quadrant is for items that are important without requiring immediate action. Covey points out that this quadrant should be used for long-term strategizing.
  • Quadrant III – distractions with high urgency
    The third quadrant is reserved for tasks that are urgent, without being important. Covey recommends minimizing or even eliminating these tasks as they do not contribute to your output. Delegation is also an option.
  • Quadrant IV – activities with little to no value
    The fourth and last quadrant focuses on tasks and responsibilities that do not yield any value—items that are unimportant and not urgent. These time wasters should be eliminated at any costs.

How to apply the time management matrix?

When using the Time Management Matrix it is recommended to try to maximize the time spent with quadrant II activities. This will allow you (in the long run) to reduce quadrant I activities, as many of them could have been quadrant II activities—if better planning had been implemented.

The objective of using the time management matrix is to question whether a certain activity brings you closer to your goals or not. If this is the case, these responsibilities need to be prioritized over those tasks that might demand your time but do not contribute to your goals. Delay activities that do not contribute any significant output until more important tasks are finished.

Covey’s time management grid has many possible applications, but here are two to try.

Reprioritizing your current ‘to-do’ list

The time matrix can be applied as a tool that allows you to reprioritize the importance and urgency of your current and upcoming tasks. By sorting the tasks and responsibilities into the appropriate grid you will be able to quickly identify activities that need your immediate attention.

One week assessments

The second approach requires a weekly assessment. You will need six blank copies of the matrix, five for each workday and one for your weekly assessment. At the end of each workday, you list all tasks and responsibilities and the amount of time spent. At the end of the week, you summarize the five days of your week in one matrix. Make sure to summarize the amount of time spent on a given task.

After you have summarized the week you can then evaluate how well the time was spent and whether or not you need to make any adjustments.

The Time Management Matrix is a tool and I have found it to be very helpful, especially when planning out my week.  Give it a try and see how it might help you increase your productivity.


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