ARTICLE: The Ultimate Time Management Principle

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“Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.” – Johann Wolfgang Goethe

timeWe all have the same 24 hours in everyday, and the difference that makes the difference for each of us is how we choose to fill them. The most productive people I have ever met have not necessarily been harder working than everyone else; they just have a skill for appropriately focusing their efforts according to the time they have at their disposal.

The problem with most time management systems is that they are more concerned with generating maximum activity than they are about achieving actual objectives.

A classic example of this is the humble daily To Do list, where we jot down all the tasks that we believe need to be done that day and then re-arrange them so that they are presented in a logical sequence; the order in which we plan to tackle them. A popular approach is to get the quick and easy tasks done first so that we’ll be less distracted when it comes to doing the meaty challenging jobs at the bottom of the list.

Sometimes this works fine, but more often than not we get so caught up in the little tasks (and all the other distractions that inevitably turn up, and were not on the list in the first place) that we find ourselves under real pressure by the time we get to the bigger ones.

So, we might think that the obvious solution is to prioritise the big jobs first so that we can be confident that they will get done, and then rattle through the little ones with the time that is left.

Again, sometime this can work fine, but all too often little jobs left undone have a habit of turning into bigger problems further down the line. The fact is, no matter which way you slice it, prioritising volumes of activity against available time does not guarantee successful outcomes.

One of the “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” – the work of Dr Stephen Covey – is the habit of ‘Putting First Things First’. This means in order to know how you need to be spending your time you must first know the reason you are engaging in any activity in the first place.

An employee of any organisation is not paid simply to produce reports, move widgets or go to meetings. Every employee must be absolutely clear how their being there is helping that company achieve its overall mission and objectives.

The same can be said of people in general. It is usually true to say that the reason we go to work, build homes, raise families, support charities, join groups, is not just to fill the time until we leave this mortal coil. It is because we are driven by desires to make meaningful differences in the World (even if we’re not always consciously aware of what that means!). We don’t just go to work for going to work’s sake. We go to work because it contributes to the wider, more important story of our life.

If what you spend most of your time doing is not actually aligned to some bigger purpose or moving your towards your goal, then the obvious question has to be asked – why are you doing so much of it?

Dr. Covey introduces a fantastic prioritisation tool that I have found indispensable in just about every area of my own life. Rather than launching into a flurry of activity in the hope it can all get done within a limited timeframe, the first thing to consider is the urgency of a task versus its importance.

As a simplistic measure of how I gauge this is:

Urgent = Bad things happen if I don’t do it
Important = Good things happen if I do

Imagine a large square that has been equally divided into four smaller quadrants, each of them represents one of the combinations of urgency versus importance.

1, Urgent and Important – Otherwise known as crisis! It has to be addressed right now or there will be serious consequences. Being a frequent visitor to Quadrant 1 takes up A LOT of energy.

* Unpaid bills
* Angry customers (or spouses!!)
* Health problems
* Pressing deadlines
* Fire fighting

2, Not Urgent, but Important – These are tasks that contribute to your mission, roles and goals. They don’t necessarily have to be done now, but if they spend too long untouched in Quadrant 2 they can end up in Quadrant 1!!

* Learning new skills / knowledge
* Looking after your wellbeing
* Objective and goals setting
* Improving processes
* Nurturing Relationships

3, Urgent, but not Important – Lovingly referred to as ‘other people’s problems’!! Of course, we want to be able to help other people because the outcome of these activities is important to them, but when we spend too much time in Quadrant 3, the things are important to us, personally, get left out in the rain.

* Ringing Phone
* Interruptions
* Non-productive meetings
* Request from others

4, Not Urgent and Not Important – AKA ‘wasting time’. There is a time and a place to waste time. At the end of a hectic day it can be just what the doctor ordered to put your feet up, turn your head off and watch some mindless TV. But if this becomes more of a habit than a meaningful use of downtime, then your life direction begins to suffer.

* Trivia
* Gossip
* Excessive TV
* Time wasters
* Re-arranging your desk for the 20th time this morning!


Dr. Covey poses the question, what one activity are you convinced that, if you were to start doing superbly and consistently well on a regular basis, would bring you significant positive rewards in your life? (Perhaps it’s more dedicated quality time with loved ones, or going to the gym, or sitting down and planning for the future). Then decide which quadrant that activity sits in.

The answer is always Quadrant 2 – “Not Urgent, but Important”. It has to be important if it would give you such positive rewards, and it is obviously not urgent, otherwise you would already be doing more of it!

People who spend as much time as they can in Quadrant 2 find that there is hardly ever a need to visit Quadrant 1, because they work on important issues before they become problems. But the reason so few people actually spend enough time engaging in Quadrant 2 activities is because, unlike the other quadrants, there is no built-in mechanism to say when they actually need to be done.


Homework


Take some time and decide on at least three Quadrant 2 activities that would immediately enrich your life in ways that are meaningful to you. Then schedule appointments in your diary for each of those activities to take place over the coming week. Stick to those appointments as if it is crucial for you to show up and do them. If something or someone tries to elbow their way into that time slot, politely refuse and say you’re already booked up. And most importantly, enjoy yourself ;o)


Take great care. Namaste.

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