Take Control of Your Time: Urgent vs. Important

Take Control of Your Time: Urgent vs. Important

I read this blog on "Deconstructing urgent vs. important". It made me think and want to share with you excerpts from three tips from my book "The Servant Manager: 203 tips from the best places to work in America".

These three tips are: use the time management matrix; take control of your life with time management techniques; and take time for your priorities.  I hope you find these helpful. I know that teaching these types of tips to managers makes a real difference both to them and for them with their employees.  However, these tips can help anyone.

Use the Time Management Matrix

Previously I introduced you to Stephen Covey (Defining Personal Goals (SMART Criteria)). In his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People he introduces the concept of a “Time Management Matrix.” A time management matrix allows you to categorize activities into a time matrix based on whether the activity is important or not and whether it is urgent or not.

Time Management Matrix

Adapted from The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey
 UrgentNot Urgent



  • Crises
  • Pressing Problems
  • Deadline-driven Projects
  • "Management" Type Activities
  • Planning Helps Reduce Quadrant I Activities
  • Spending Too Much Time Here May Lead To Stress, Burnout, and Crisis Management as the Norm



  • Prevention, Refill Activities
  • Relationship Building
  • Recognizing New Opportunities
  • Planning, Recreation
  • "Leadership" Type Activities
  • Spending More Time Here Provides You With Vision, Perspective, Balance, Discipline, Control, Accomplishments, and Fewer Crisis
Not Important



  • Interruptions, Some Calls
  • Some Mail, Some Reports
  • Some Meetings
  • Pressing Matters
  • Popular Activities
  • Procrastinators Spend Too Much Time Here Taking Time Away from Quadrant "II"



  • Trivia, Busy Work
  • Some Mail
  • Some Phone Calls
  • Time Wasters
  • Pleasant Activities
  • Procrastinators Spend Too Much Time Here Taking Time Away from Quadrant "II"

Determine which tasks, projects or activities are important. This is critical for you and for your employees.

Importance is based on whether or not the task moves you towards your goals, reinforcing the earlier point of goals being the foundation of all good time management.

Urgency refers to how quickly something needs to be completed. If something is urgent it must be completed right away.

Think about the different roles we each play in our private, public and work environments.

What do you want to do with your extra two hours a day that you wrote down at the start of this chapter?

Depending on your position and what you do in your organization you will define activities in different quadrants, because time is personal to everyone. Your concept of what is important and urgent is based on your goals and values.

The key for an organization is to ensure leaders and employees value the organization’s goals so they will be placed in Quadrants I and II. As an uncommon manager you not only have to deal effectively with your own time, but also ensure your employees use their work time effectively towards the organization’s goals. Think of your and your employees’ evaluation. How can you make work time use as important to your employees as it is or should be to you?

Some common examples of time in Quadrants might be:

  • Quadrant I – Urgent & Important
    A specific need for a very important client
  • Quadrant II – Not Urgent & Important
    Work on a key project, setting the agenda for your next group meeting, exercise, family
  • Quadrant III – Urgent & Not Important
    Answering correspondence, e-mail, addressing the outreach program in your company such as your leadership role in the United Way Campaign at work
  • Quadrant IV – Not Urgent & Not Important
    Talking to an outside vendor, reading the company newsletter

Associate the activities in your day-to-day operations with each of these four quadrants. Think about processes, reports, planning, coaching, teambuilding, long term planning, organizing and other activities. Where to you spend your time? Document this for a day or a week and see where you actually spend your time. You may be surprised.

Write down the percentage of time you think you spend in each quadrant.

Where do you spend most of your time?

Do you think some people often stay in Quadrant IV to avoid issues in Quadrant II issues because these might be unpleasant and difficult to deal with? Avoiding Quadrant II issues cause them to move to Quadrant I.

Procrastinating and avoiding important issues in Quadrant II causes the issue to move into Quadrant I

Now ask yourself where do you think you should spend your time?

The result of spending too much time in Quadrant I is stress, burnout, and crises management as the norm. Many of the activities in Quadrant I are “management” type activities and many Quadrant II activities are “leadership” activities.

Quadrant III or IV activities time should be minimized. These quadrants are not important by definition. Spending to much time in these quadrants may keep you busy.

Too much time spent here demonstrates a short term focus, presents a poor reputation, provides a feeling of being victimized or out of control, and demonstrates irresponsible behavior. Too much time spent in these quadrants could even result in termination.

You need to schedule your priorities.

Spending the bulk of your time in Quadrant II, however, provides you with vision, perspective, balance, discipline, control, accomplishment and fewer crises.

Planning is extremely important and reduces Quadrant I activities.

At times Quadrant I needs to be your primary focus. For example for tax accountants January to April is very hectic. The focus is on production related to preparing and filing tax returns.

The goal is to reduce Quadrant I time as much as possible (It cannot be eliminated, of course) and to eliminate as much as possible in Quadrant III and all of Quadrant IV.

You need to frequently ask yourself whether this action furthers your goals.

When you focus on your time spent in Quadrant II related to all of life’s roles (whether these are friends, parents, spouse, manager, employees, etc.) you will make real progress with your time management activities.

Here are some tips to help you stay in Quadrant II:

  • Test your time in terms of: Necessity, Appropriateness and Efficiency
  • Set priorities: A = Must Do, B = Should Do, C = Nice to Do
  • There are three ways to use your time better: Discontinue your low priories, off-load work to someone else, and be more efficient at what you do.
  • There are two types of time wasters: environmental and self-generated
  • Procrastination is a habit, take steps to break the habit
  • Save time by taking actions to preserve your personal space

A good source is the Crisp Publications book Personal Time Management

Take Control of Your Life with Time Management Techniques

One thing you should ask yourself regularly throughout the day, is...

What is the best use of my time right now?

This is one of the most powerful techniques to manage your time. When you have a few minutes to spare ask yourself this question. This can help you focus. Daily ask the same question as you start your day. Do this when you start a new week, a new month, or a new year.

Make a “To Do” list every day

Use Outlook, use g- mail, use a day planner, or other tool to do this. Make it a daily habit. I try to wrap up each day with identifying what I need to carry over from today. In the morning, I use this as part of my “To Do” list which starts off with “VMS and e-mail” and goes on from there. Once I list my various activities, I need to prioritize them.


Review the activities and appointments for your day, and put letters next to them to prioritize them.

A = High Value – Have to do today

B = Medium Value – I should do today, but do not have to do this today

C = Low Value – Nice to do

Break Up Large Tasks

Sometimes an “A” task can seem overwhelming. Break this type of task into simpler smaller and more manageable components. Take a high priority that seems overwhelming and nibble away at it whenever there are a few extra minutes. If a job is taking 60 hours, you may not have to spend all 60 hours at one time. If you have five minutes, ask yourself

“Is there anything I can do in that time that will move this task a litter further along?”

“Can I find an instant task that will knock a little hole in that big project?”

It makes sense to make a list of these brief tasks and prioritize them. Jot them down in your day planner. Make yourself a to do list, or project list. Make a weekly or monthly planning page.

This will help you recall that this is a task you wanted to do when you had the time available. Do one of these smaller tasks whenever you have the chance.

Ask for “Best Practices”

Ask your peers, your mentors, your boss and others what they do. Take best practices and try them out. Keep what works for you. Ask “What works for you?”

Create a Suspense System

In short, a suspense system is a way for you to make sure you keep track of what is due and plan time to do the work to meet the expected deliverable timely. A suspense system is a way that you, or you with your administrative assistant suspense items. For example you might want to suspense that on the third Tuesday you set aside four hours to work on a management report that is due on Thursday.

This gives you time to work on it and follow up if needed if information on Tuesday was at should have been. That is you have to track down other items to make sure you provide the report timely for Thursday. Suspense items include correspondence, actions and activities.

You suspense various things by ensuring that the issues are brought to your attention or the appropriate party’s attention so that the task will be accomplished timely. In addition to tracking due dates, an uncommon manager can use a suspense system as a “trigger” or a reminder of his or her goals.

Use Outlook (G-mail, Hot mail, etc.) E-mail Program

On Outlook use the Calendar, Tasks and Journal features. Go on line and see ways to give yourself reminders. Set up reminders for some period ahead of time. This could be a few hours, a few days or a few weeks.

This is not a lesson in Outlook, so you may want to simply go on line with an Outlook tutorial. You may want to network with a peer, an IT person, or other key person. Consider an informal presentation by some key person for a group of you during lunch (lunch and learn) at work to talk and learn from each other. Select the elements of Outlook that work best for you.

A Quick Comment about the “Mason Jar”

Picture a mason jar or an empty jar of “Miracle Whip” in front of you with lid off. Imagine your life’s top priorities (call them” A “priorities) are a bunch of good size rocks. Take these top priority rocks and put them into the jar. Once you reach the top of the jar, stop.

Those are your top priorities and there is no more room for you to screw the top back on the jar. These top priorities may be family, friends, finances, fun, education, vacation, religion, volunteering, sleeping, exercise and socializing. Fill the jar with these rocks but leave enough room to screw the lid shut. Is the jar full? Not yet. There is still room for more.

Now identify your next set of priorities. Imagine taking your lessor priorities (as smaller rocks) being filled in between the large rocks. These might be your life’s “B” priorities. Again leave room to screw the lid shut. Is the jar full? Not yet. There is still room form more.

Now imagine taking your least priority tasks as “C” priorities as sand being filled in between the large and smaller rocks. Again leave room to screw the lid shut. Is the jar full? Not yet. There is still room for more.

If every minute of every day was full with something imagine filing in what is remaining with water. The remaining open spaces are whatever else fills our days. Now fill up the jar, but leave just enough room to screw on the lid of the jar. Is the jar full? Yes it is.

What is the point of this exercise? Should we try to fill our life with these various activities? No. The point is that

“If you don’t put the big rocks in first, you will never get them in at all.

You need to carefully determine what your big rocks are. Similarly, you also need make time for your top priorities. If you don’t, you will not achieve those priorities. You may want to actually try doing something like this with your team as a visual demonstration.

This tip focused on useful time management techniques. Now some tips are presented on taking time for the important things, and how to avoid common time wasters.

Take Time for Your Priorities

This tip is about taking time considering your priorities in life. Add your own too. The point is to periodically reflect on your priorities and to see if you are taking the time for those activities you deem to be really important.

Take the time to work

            It’s the price you pay for success

Take the time to think

            It’s the source of power

Take the time to play

            It’s the secret of youth

Take the time to read

            It’s the foundation of knowledge

Take the time to worship

            It’s the way we open our eyes and see life for what it is

Take time to help and enjoy friends

            It’s the source of so much happiness

Take the time to love

            It’s the key to life

Take time to dream

            It ties our soul to the stars

Take time to laugh

            It is the singing that helps with our heavy loads – you need to laugh every day

Take time to plan

            It is the secret of being able to have time for first nine things

About the author

Mike Gregory is a professional speaker, an author, and a mediator. You may contact Mike directly at mg@mikegreg.com and at (651) 633-5311. Mike has written 12 books (and co-authored two others) including his latest book, The Collaboration Effect: Overcoming Your Conflicts, and The Servant Manager, Business Valuations and the IRS, and Peaceful Resolutions that you may find helpful. [Michael Gregory, ASA, CVA, MBA, Qualified Mediator with the Minnesota Supreme Court]