Now before you roll your eyes and think “Oh, another piece of shallow advice on how to manage your time… blah blah blah”, hear me out on this one!

I’ve stumbled across a piece of time management advice that actually works. Yes, I’m not lying. This golden nugget of advice comes from Stephen R. Covey’s classic mega-hit book originally written in the 80s, called The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

A Brief History of Time (Management)

Okay guys, a show of hands please: How many of us use checklists and calendars to manage our day?

I can’t see your imaginary hands waving in the air, but I would dare to say that most people have their hand up.

If these tools are all that you use, this is very bad news.

The field of time management has had four iterations, according to Covey. Each successor has trumped its predecessor in its effectiveness. The table below outlines the evolution of time management.

Generation Technique Basic idea
  • To-do lists
  • Post-it notes
Just to write down and remember all our tasks
  • Calendars
  • Appointment books
  • Planners
Looking ahead into the future. Adding the dimension of time to our to-do list.
  • Adding prioritization to the second generation
Scheduling our tasks in order of priority, not just time.
Fourth (Covey)
  • Defines priority as a combination of urgency and importance
This is Covey’s idea of effective time management. What is it exactly? Read on.


The flaw of earlier generations

It’s natural to think about time in terms of amounts: seconds, minutes, hours, weeks. As a consequence, most people’s time management sounds like this: “I’ll study for 3 hours tonight”; “I’m giving myself an hour to do task X”; “I can only spend 2 hours on task Y”.

Simply focusing on the quantity of time that you spend is extremely myopic. Not seeing where I’m going with this? Here’s a metaphor. Think about the stock market. Do investors measure their performance as a function of the quantity of capital that they have invested? No, because that would be absurd. Instead, investors measure their performances based on which company they invest in and the company’s value. Dumping a million dollars onto a failing business will swallow your capital whole, whereas investing just a fraction of that same amount in a valuable, high-growth business will, well, grow your capital.

Now apply this thinking to time. In the context of time management, we also invest. We invest time, not money. Therefore, to make the best use of our time, we need to spend it on valuable high-growth activities, as opposed to zero- or negative-growth tasks like lying on a couch or watching 10 hours of Dr. Phil.

Clearly, spending time doesn’t guarantee results. You need to spend time on things that matter.

This is where Covey steps in. His fourth generation paradigm helps us stay on track and stick to valuable, high-growth activities by injecting the dimensions of importance and urgency into its predecessor, the third generation of time management.

Using importance and urgency as new guides, we can classify our tasks into quadrants. Thus we get a ‘time management matrix’.

time management matrix screenshot

Where do you live in the Matrix?

Take a moment to think about how you invest your time.

  • Are squandering endless hours on YouTube, Instagram and Facebook?
  • Are you constantly getting bogged down by urgent but insignificant tasks?
  • Is your life a frantic sprint as you try to manage crises at work and at home one after another?
  • Do you feel like you don’t get time to just sit down and think?
  • Is your name Neo and are you spending too much time day-dreaming about Trinity? (get it? haha)

If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you probably spend too much time in Quadrants 1, 3 and 4.

A new home

Quadrant 2 (highlighted in green) is the place where we want to spend the majority of our time, because it is here at the intersection of importance and non-urgency that we find the activities that are most conducive to personal growth, learning and development.

Due to the peculiar mixture of importance and non-urgency, Quadrant 2 activities are precisely the sorts of things that are important to us in the long-term—such as daily exercise, relationship building and networking—but are seemingly unimportant in the short-term, since the benefits resulting from such activities are not immediate (for example, running for an hour will not immediately cure someone’s cancer). As a result, we often bury these important activities beneath the more urgent, and often more fickle, demands of modern life such as urgent pesky phone calls, urgent emails, urgent meetings, etc.

Quadrant 2 activities are valuable and high-growth. According to Covey, highly effective people recognize that Quadrant 2 matters, and they choose to invest their patience, commitment and time in such activities.

The secret to effective time management is therefore to not just think about the quantity of time spent on a task but also if the time is being spent on a task that aligns with your personal mission, vision and long-term goals. And yes, that rules out binging Game of Thrones (unless you Cosplay full-time and sincerely aspire to master the myriad tongues of Westeros).

Quick summary for those who have read the whole post and those who are impatient (you know who you are)

Here are the central ideas, thoughts and questions that I want you to take away from this blog post:

  1. Are you spending the majority of your time on things that matter to you (i.e. things that align with your personal mission, vision and long-term goals)?
  2. Whenever you do something, think about which quadrant the task inhabits in the time management matrix. If it’s not important, try to get it done ASAP. Basically, ask yourself: “Does this task matter in the broader scheme of things?”
  3. Schedule your day, week, month and life around activities that will help you growth and develop both personally and professionally.

In the end, I don’t think I actually gave you a technique for time management. Instead, I told you about a way of thinking which, in my opinion, is far more powerful than any quick-fix management tool. I hope that these ideas will boost your productivity and bring greater meaning and purpose to your life.