Prioritising Tasks The Stephen R Covey Way

In this week’s edition of The Motivation we look at time management as dealt with in the book The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People by Stephen R Covey, a seminal work in personal productivity and growth.

The 7 Habits lay the foundation for a successful career, teaching you how to approach fundamental topics such as relationship-building and how to communicate well. In Habit 3, Covey gives you powerful insights on prioritising tasks. He claims you divide your activities into 4 categories:

  1. Important
  2. Not Important
  3. Urgent
  4. Not Urgent

These 4 classifications overlap to form a grid of 4 quadrants (see image below) within which we organise our time.


The following is an overview of each Quadrant and the results associated with them:

Quadrant 1 covers the urgent and important and consists of problems and crises. Sometimes these can’t be avoided, such as when you get ill. But often times people focus solely on activities in this quadrant because of poor time management. Procrastination or lack of planning mean that a small issue becomes a big one. The results of focusing too much of your time in Quadrant 1 are stress, burnout and feeling like you’re always putting out fires.

Quadrant 3 covers the urgent, but not important and consists of activities such as responding to phone calls and emails, the content of which is not related to your goals. The appearance of work is there, but truly valuable outputs are scarce to be seen. Results include short-term focus and shallow or broken relationships. People focusing on this quadrant often feel victimized, out of control and don’t value goals and planning.

Quadrant 4 covers the not urgent and the not important. This is when you are spending time on activities that have no valuable output and are not related to your goals whatsoever. Whereas in Quadrant 3 you may respond immediately to an email that has low value, in this Quadrant you are responding to emails with zero value. The not urgent and not important also includes examples such as randomly browsing the internet or watching TV. The result of this kind of behaviour is someone who doesn’t take responsibility, gets fired from jobs and is dependant on others or institutions for basics.

Quadrant 2 covers the not urgent, but important. This is the work that, if you apply yourself to every day, will result in you achieving your goals. If you are building a media-focused startup, these are the tasks that will most directly result in eyeballs on the screen. If you have a hardware startup, this is doing the designs, or connecting with manufacturers. Focusing on Quadrant 2 results in a person who has vision, perspective, balance, discipline, control and few crises.

In his book, Covey explains how to categorise activities into these quadrants and leverage this analysis. For example, he suggests not using daily planners with tight schedules that don’t allow for a bit of spontaneity or dealing with stuff that has to be dealt with immediately. He states this is too constraining and discourages people from proper planning. Rather you should schedule your time in a weekly fashion, with the broad goal to gradually move your focus from activities in Quadrant 1, 3 and 4 to Quadrant 2. So for example, you could start by dedicating 2 hours every morning to Quadrant 2 tasks, leaving the rest of the day open to whatever comes your way. As time goes on you should have less urgent matters to deal with so you can decrease the amount of time you put into the other Quadrants.

To summarise the power of this, let’s contemplate how you will feel at the end of the 2018. When you look back, what will you remember? Will it be all the emails and phone calls you answered? Or will it be the product you launched? Or the number of users you have? Covey’s simple yet powerful approach to examining how you spend your time should help you increase your productivity in real terms and help you achieve your goals.

If you would like to read further, here is the link to The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People on Amazon.