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Thinking Inside the Right Box


Quick refresher: Steven Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People contains a “Time Management Matrix” that contains 4 boxes: the intersections of Important / Not Important and Urgent / Not Urgent.  This Matrix is about so much more than time management.  It really is the secret of successful people and successful businesses.  We feel it is timely to discuss this now, because in the past 4 years of the recession, we’ve seen more and more companies dwelling in Quadrant I – Important AND Urgent.  Covey, and many management experts after him who have written on this topic, felt that the Quadrant I was about problems – the crises and fire-fighting that consumes so many executives.  Quadrants III and IV  are more obvious – If something is not important and not urgent, we shouldn’t be doing it at all, at least not on the company’s clock.  If it is not important but is urgent, smart executives figure out a way to get it done efficiently without letting it interfere with more important activity.

In the original book, Covey paraphrases fellow management expert Peter Drucker this way: “Effective people are not problem-minded; they’re opportunity-minded.”  All opportunities, vision, creative work, strategic work – the stuff that makes a difference and propels company and people forward – occurs in Quadrant II (Important but NOT urgent).

Assuming that you have successfully minimized the valuable time that can be lost in Quadrant III and IV, the key question then is how do you get out of Quadrant I (tactical firefighting) and into Quadrant II (strategy)?  The key things are:

  • Prioritizing:  Knowing what are the most important things each day, and making sure to get them done quickly.
  • Planning: What goes in your calendar is your decision.  If you set aside time for Quadrant II activities, and get your Quadrant I things done early, you will invest more time in the higher quality activities.
  • Delegating:  If you have a team under you, embrace the law of least-possible effort – for yourself!  Make sure that everything that can be done effectively by others is being delegated to the right level under you.
  • Saying NO: Not every fire is your fire.  Know when to offer alternatives or help someone think through their own solution, and when to avoid getting enmeshed in a problem that you don’t need to be in.
  • Eliminating Perfectionism:  Once you know how to get something done efficiently, any more time spent in that area is in box III – not important but urgent.  It is only urgent because you have deemed it so.  Embrace the adage that Done is Better than Perfect, and tasks can be concluded more quickly.

When we can spend more time in Quadrant II – the place of opportunity – we are being far more effective leaders.  So, try to think INSIDE the box; just make sure it is the right box!