Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Put first things first

In an earlier post I shared about books that have changed the way I think. One of those books is The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey.

The first two habits are:
  1. Be proactive.
  2. Begin with the end in mind.

Habit 3 - Put First Things First

This third habit is the focus of this post. In my book, 60,000 Words in 6 Weeks, chapter one addresses similar concepts. The Twitter summary of the chapter is Whether you write for just a few minutes at a time or several hours, be intentional with how you utilize your available time daily.

The main idea of putting first things first is to organize your days and week around priorities. As Covey writes in the book, "The key is not to prioritize what's in your schedule, but to schedule around your priorities."

The best way to achieve this goal is to first think about activities in your life along two continua, urgency and importance. Covey uses urgency and importance to create four quadrants into which all activities can be sorted.

Quadrant I - Necessity

The first quadrant, events that are urgent and important, is the quadrant of necessity. These are the unexpected crises that must be dealt with. Flat tires, medical emergencies, deadlines imposed by upper management, and similar events fall into this quadrant. To ignore crises often leads to worse situations. Quadrant I events must be managed.

Quadrant III - Deception

The third quadrant (I'm saving Quadrant II for last) contains events that are urgent but not important. These are often the result of other who impose their priorities and crises on you. These types of activities can feel important because action is occurring, but the end result is not important. Checking e-mail, telephone calls that interrupt other work, and meetings for the sake of meetings fall into this quadrant, the quadrant of deception.

A great Quadrant III example is a ringing phone or a knock at the door. How can you evaluate the importance until you first acknowledge the interruption? Quadrant III events must be evaluated with caution.

Quadrant IV - Waste/Excess

The fourth quadrant, events that are neither important nor urgent are time-wasters. Excessive time spent on hobbies, using technology without a purpose (constantly checking Facebook or Instagram), and watching TV are excellent examples of activities that waste time.

While there is nothing inherently wrong with hobbies, TV, or technology, it is the excess use that brings activities into Quadrant IV, a quadrant that should be avoided.

Quadrant II - Planning and Preparation

The second quadrant is characterized by events that are not urgent but are important. Planning based on priorities, whether work-related goals, personal goals, or family is vitally important, but not necessarily urgent. A crisis won't occur now if you don't plan a cruise for next summer. Unlike excess time wasting in Quadrant IV, taking time to relax between period of activity fits into Quadrant II because of the rejuvenating nature.

Taking the time to set goals, build relationships, spend time with family, and improve yourself are worthy activities, and this is where the focus should be. Time gained from avoiding Quadrant IV - waste and excess - can be applied to Quadrant II activities.

In thinking about these quadrants, where your daily and weekly activities fit? What are some Quadrant III and Quadrant IV activities that you can eliminate?

The U.S. Geological Survey has produced a three-page guide to the time management matrix, available as a PDF.

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