If you're constantly putting out fires, it's likely your stress level is going through the roof. It may be time to take stock of how you're spending your time and work to develop more effective time management strategies. Differentiating between urgent and important tasks is the first step in time, and ultimately, stress management.
Urgency occurs when we have to attend to something immediately, such as an irate
customer, or meeting an imminent deadline. Urgency is a part of life and in itself, it is not a problem. It only becomes a problem when it's the dominant factor in our lives. These are the times when we are so caught up in putting out fires that we don't take the time to ask ourselves if what we're doing really needs to be done.
Completing important tasks contributes to meeting our overall objectives and gives richness and meaning to our lives. Important tasks require focused attention yet they rarely tend to act upon us or press on us. These are the tasks that we must act upon in order to feel a sense of accomplishment in our roles.
Stephen Covey's 4 quadrant approach to time management as presented in the 3rd Habit: "First Things First" (7 Habits of Highly Effective People)
Quadrant I: Urgent & Important
Quadrant I activities represent the things that are both “urgent” and “important”. Here’s where we handle an irate client, meet a deadline, repair a broken-down machine, undergo heart surgery, or help a crying child who has been hurt. We need to spend time in Quadrant I. This is where we manage, where we produce, where we bring our experience and judgment to bear in responding to needs and challenges. If we ignore this quadrant, it can feel like we're being buried alive. We also need to realize, however, that many important activities become urgent through procrastination, or because we don’t do enough prevention and planning. Spending too much time in this quadrant increases our stress.
Quadrant II: Important But Not Urgent
Quadrant II includes activities that are “important”, but not urgent". This is the 'Quadrant of Quality'. It's where we do our long range planning, anticipate and prevent problems, empower others, broaden our minds and increase our skills through reading and continuous professional development. We are living in Quadrant II when we prepare for important meetings and presentations, or when we invest in relationships through deep, honest listening. Planning, preparation, and prevention keep many things from becoming urgent. Quadrant II does not act on us; it requires us to take action.
Quadrant III: Urgent But Not Important
Quadrant III is almost the phantom of Quadrant I. It includes things that are “urgent, but not important”. This is the quadrant of deception. The noise of urgency creates the illusion of importance. But the actual activities, if they’re important at all, are only important to someone else. Many phone calls, meetings, and drop-in visitors fall into this category. Typically, we spend a lot of time in Quadrant III meeting other people’s priorities and expectations and fool ourselves into thinking we’re in Quadrant I.
Quadrant IV: Not Urgent & Not Important
Quadrant IV is reserved for those activities that are “not urgent and not important”. This is the 'Quadrant of Waste'. Of course, the less time we spend in this quadrant, the more productive we are. Unfortunately, we get so battle-scarred from being tossed around in Quadrants I and III that we often escape to Quadrant IV for survival. What kinds of things are in Quadrant IV? Not necessarily recreational things, because recreation in the true sense of re – creation is a valuable Quadrant II activity. Playing computer or video games, habitually watching “mindless” television shows or gossiping in the coffee room qualify as Quadrant IV activities. It is important to note that Quadrant IV does not really have anything to do with survival: It actually leads to deterioration. In the long run, the immediate gratification of Quadrant IV activities lead to a sense of emptiness or a void.
Importance ParadigmClearly, we deal with both factors – urgency and importance – in our lives. However, in our day-to-day decision making, one of these factors tend to dominate. Typically, when we operate primarily from a paradigm of urgency rather than a paradigm of importance, we experience high levels of stress.
When we operate out of the importance paradigm, however, we live in Quadrants I and II and we’re out of Quadrants III and IV. As we spend more time in preparation, prevention, and empowerment, we decrease the amount of time we spend putting out fires in Quadrant I, decreasing. As a result, our stress level also decreases. Even the nature of Quadrant I changes. Most of the time we spend in Quandrant 1, we're there by choice rather than by default. We may even choose to make something urgent or timely because it’s important.
Connect...Increase the time you spend on Quadrant II activities to decrease your stress. Start by making a list of several Quadrant II activities and then determine which of these activities will have the greatest impact on your stress level. List indicators of success (i.e. how you will know you're making progress?) to help keep you motivated and on track. The following questions will help you get started:
What is the one activity that you will commit to doing superbly well and consistently that will have significant positive results in your personal life? (E.g. commit to regular exercise)
What is one activity that you will commit to doing superbly well and consistently that will have significant positive results in your professional and work life? (E.g. improve communication with co-workers)
Share your success with us: What is your most effective time management strategy?
About Gail Daniels
Gail is accomplished at supporting organizations by providing the right set of planning tools and best practice processes to develop, map, document and follow through to execution of the Strategic Direction, Priorities and Actions. She is passionate about supporting and developing leaders to confidently lead people to inspired performance and results. Gail holds a MA Counselling Psychology and a Graduate Certificate in Executive Coaching from Royal Roads University. Gail is an avid learner who actively explores the relevance of neuroscience and emotional intelligence in leadership.