Time management is a focus area for many of my clients, and it seems even more relevant today. Many of us, including myself, are spending a great deal of effort on navigating risk, staying safe, and making choices during the ongoing uncertainty of the pandemic. This is mentally taxing, and I have had to deliberately focus so that the important things in my life get the attention they need.
I have written before on how to take control of your time. One of the guiding principles of time management is setting your priorities and spending your time on those priorities accordingly. However, it is easy to get lost in clutter. For example, email can take over a good chunk of your day (28% of your day, according to McKinsey). And new emails get your immediate attention (chime!). But is responding to email the most important and productive thing for you to be doing?
The Urgent/Important Principle, attributed to former U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower, can help you determine where you should focus your time and energy. This framework suggests that the things on our to-do lists fall into one of four categories:
- Important and Urgent
- Important and Not Urgent
- Not Important and Urgent
- Not Important and Not Urgent
You may have noticed that these are also listed in order of priority, with highest priority items at the top of the list, the lowest priority items at the bottom. We can probably all quickly identify the things we need to do each day or each week that are Important and Urgent. And we probably all know that when we are deliberately procrastinating and surfing the internet, we are squarely in the category of Not Important and Not Urgent.
The areas where things get tricky are the second and third categories. We likely give less attention to the things that are Important and Not Urgent and allow things that are Not Important and Urgent to occupy our time. Going back to the email example, the new message chime can trick us into thinking the message we just received is urgent. (The chime is called an “alert,” after all). But this framework encourages us to be reflective instead of reactive. Is the email important? Is responding to it right away (or even today) my priority?
The following additional description can help you categorize your own to-do list:
Important and Urgent: Deadlines, emergencies, and pressing issues. These things must be addressed right away and have a relatively short-term timeline. Consider setting aside a certain amount of time each day or each week to address unexpected Important and Urgent items that may come up.
Important and Not Urgent: Activities that move you toward your longer-term and big-picture goals and objectives. Includes things like strategic planning, business development, risk analysis, budgeting, networking, team-building, and professional development. These things are easy to put off, so make an effort to add them to your schedule. Spending more time in this category can help you prevent certain things from ending up in Category 1 (Important and Urgent).
Not Important and Urgent: Things that interrupt your day, cut into your limited time, and keep you from your priorities. This includes many (but not all) phone calls, text messages, and emails. It also includes meetings and reporting that may not add value (“busy work”). Focus your communication on high-priority items and/or set aside uninterrupted work times. Re-assess the usefulness of meetings and reporting. Determine if you can delegate to someone else the communication, meeting, reporting, or other tasks that are not central to your responsibilities.
Not Important and Not Urgent: These items distract you from what really matters. This may include things that others ask you to do that do not move you toward your own individual or team objectives. Avoid spending time, energy, and effort on these activities as much as possible (which may mean practicing saying “no”).
It is easy to get distracted by what is right in front of you. By being proactive and thoughtful instead of reactive, you can assess your priorities, focus on what is most important, and use your time more efficiently and effectively.