What consumes your time, consumes your life.
Take a look at what you’ve done so far today. What have you accomplished? What have you spent your time doing?
If you had to account for each hour, and even each minute, how much time do you waste and how much do you use wisely? The point is, some of the time you spent today probably passed by unnoticed. Our thoughts can slip by unnoticed as well. What do you think about throughout the day? Do you think about what is most important to you, or is your brain jumbled with random musings that have little significance?
With so many things to think about, where does one start? The answer is as individual as you are. But you can find a way to rein in your thoughts and use them to your advantage.
A great way to begin is using a decision or priority matrix, as shown in a condensed form below. A full version follows this article. Let’s discuss the matrix and its use.
The priority matrix was popularized by Steven Covey some years ago, but the oldest reference I have found dates to World War II, giving credit to then General Eisenhower for originally developing the idea. The matrix is a powerful way to take a quick look at what will truly make a difference in your life and thought patterns.
A priority matrix can provide a snapshot of your life, making visible what’s on your plate. It will bring to light the things and activities consuming your time—because where your time goes, so goes your life. Or put another way, what consumes your time consumes your life.
You can do a priority snapshot for a day, a week, a month, a year, and more. As you develop this picture of how your life is being spent, you position yourself to think about life in a new way. As you see and consider, you process the information needed to move forward.
Let’s develop the picture and consider what to do next. Using the priority matrix form that follows this article, identify the things in the last few weeks that have consumed most of your time. As each item comes to mind, determine whether it is important or not, and whether it is urgent or not. Once you make this determination, record your answer in the appropriate quadrant. As a guide, take a look at the examples in the form.
The following is an example of items from one of my old priority matrixes:
Important and Urgent
Give all tax filing documents for the year to accountant before the end of the month
Finish the quarterly draft report for review by next Friday
Take sick pet to the vet ASAP
Schedule trip to management meeting by the end of the month
Call our largest customer about production issues as soon as information is received from plant
Important but Not Urgent
Spend time with my wife each morning before going to work
Running men’s group at church
Monthly budget review with my wife
Vacation planning for the remainder of the year
Repair ceiling in my home office caused by a small roof leak
Keep tabs on work email at least twice a day
Maintain my five-morning-per-week workout schedule
Not Important but Urgent
Some work email
John’s regular requests for help, due to him waiting until the last minute
Responding to unimportant phone calls at work
Phone constantly ringing
Not Important and Not Urgent
Constantly checking personal email
Answering every phone call
Surfing the web for new camera and lens
Majority of my personal email
Drop-ins at the office
Many unproductive phone calls each day
Let’s now consider what you have by discussing each quadrant.
Important and Urgent: IU
The items you have listed as both important and urgent will certainly require time from you and should be paid great attention. We often respond quickly to items in the IU quadrant. For example, one of the items in my IU quadrant emerged when one of my important clients had a sudden opportunity and needed my services immediately. Because of the situation and the relationship, I rescheduled several things so I could help them.
While there are times when unexpected things like this happen, there are other times when something winds up in this column because of inattention. This happened to me recently when I kept putting off dealing with an important item: a vacation trip. Although I’d had months to do this, I waited too long to buy the airline tickets. Suddenly, I was faced with a looming deadline, fully realizing the airfare would cost more because I had kept putting it off. Unfortunately, I not only paid more for the flights, but I was no longer able to get my seating preferences—all because I procrastinated.
Important but Not Urgent: INU
The important but not urgent quadrant contains mostly items that help us create more value in our lives. Because of this, I often refer to this as the creating quadrant.
One of the big items in many baby boomers’ INU quadrants is that of retirement and other such planning—things like continued education, exercising to maintain or improve health, making marriage a priority, and spending time with kids and others we care about. Pay particular attention to the things in this quadrant, as they are often important to our health and well-being, as well as long-term satisfaction in life. They might not be urgent, but they cannot and should not be postponed indefinitely.
Not Important but Urgent
The not important yet urgent quadrant is one of opportunity. By recognizing what is in this quadrant—and then making decisions to either delegate, say no, or otherwise dispose of them—you can add time and reduce stress in your life.
Many times, the things in this quadrant are being imposed on you because of someone else’s lack of planning. For example, I once had a co-worker who would come to me several times a year at the twelfth hour asking for help on something he had procrastinated on. After helping him a few times, and dealing with the stress it created, it dawned on me that it was his problem and not mine.
Up to this point he knew he could count on me to bail him out. By doing so, I was enabling his bad habit. The relationship eventually became strained because of my inability to say no and because I could not let him be fully responsible for the consequences of his actions (or in this case, inactions.)
Other things that wind up in the NIU quadrant are meetings we have no business attending; allowing constant interruptions from the telephone; and the inability to just say no to certain requests.
If there is an area of your life where you could put procrastination to good use, benefitting you in the long run, it is in this and the next quadrant.
Not Important and Not Urgent: NINU
The not important and not urgent quadrant consists of true time-wasters. When I have things in this quadrant to work on—which I always do—the effort I waste here would be put to good use if I just shifted it to better things.
Eliminate everything you can in this quadrant. While downtime might seem to go naturally in the NINU, we all need some downtime. In fact, it can be helpful to add some downtime into our not urgent but important quadrant, to allow us to rest and recharge.
To become more conscious and deliberate of the amount of downtime we need can be valuable and allow us to make better use of our time.
Take some time now to develop a picture of your priorities by using the form that follows. I’ve included a guide form for your convenience. By carefully considering the items on the form you will be able to tap into the power of the matrix, and reclaim some of your time, and your life!