It is of utmost importance to not associate being busy with being productive. You can keep yourself busy by doing things like running lots of errands or zeroing out your email inbox, but not get a lot done. Conversely, you can be lazy, stay in your pajamas, and still be extremely productive with your time. It sounds like common sense, but without forethought, you can get your self caught up into doing busy work– doing tasks that technically give you something to do, but aren’t necessarily productive.
One tool that can help us manage our time effectively is the urgency-importance matrix. It’s not enough to write a simple one-dimensional check list. The matrix adds another dimension that helps us see where we can most effectively use our time. Dr. Steven Covey in his book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” describes these dimensions as “urgency” and “importance.” By identifying both the urgency and the importance of a task, it can help us to prioritize our energy to get the most done.
Urgency is the time element of our matrix. Things that are very urgent need your immediate attention. It’s now January, so the deadline for taxes isn’t for 3 more months, making it a very non-urgent task. On the other hand, if your phone was ringing, you’d be inclined to answer it immediately. A ringing phone thus is more urgent than doing your taxes.
Importance has to do with the results that comes from completion of that task. Meal planning the next 3 days of lunches and dinners and watching a movie on Netflix might both rank low on urgency, but meal planning clearly brings more value and is therefore more important. Meal planning provides value on many levels, from reducing decision fatigue to saving both time and money. Netflix for an evening might be an enjoyable distraction, but may offer no value beyond that.
The Urgent and Important Box
By looking at the table above, you can start seeing where you can prioritize. Obviously, emergencies and unforeseen things happen so those all require you to drop whatever you’re doing and you would have to take care of those things right away.
A lot of things don’t start as Box 1 items. Work deadlines and school papers often start off as Box 2 items. But for whatever reasons, they go on the back burner and before you know it they become Box 1 items. The problem is that you’ll never feel like you’ve caught up with anything. By the time you put out one fire, three more will take its place. Stress and eventually burnout comes and you’ll find yourself spending a lot of time in Box 4 to de-compress.
The Not Urgent, But Important Box
This box is where you will get the most benefit out of your time. By working on these tasks, you’re creating value for yourself. Making time for proactive things like meal planning and exercise are both beneficial for your pocket-book and your health. Being proactive will leave you with less fatigue and you’ll be able to make important decisions without being pressured into anything. You’ll be ahead of the game and will come off as ready for everything that comes at you. You are in control of your situation, as opposed to the other way around. By maximizing the time you can spend in Box 2, you will likewise minimize events that come from Box 1.
The Urgent, Not Important Box
This is the box of “busy” people. It is similar to Box 1, except everything has been raised to urgent status. Most of these tasks seem urgent, and probably need to be done, but they don’t bring much value to the table once it’s all said and done. If its 4 o’clock at the office and you have an hour to “look busy,” then checking your email and returning phone calls is going to do the trick.
If you spend too much time in this box, you’ll find yourself feeling like a people pleaser. You’ll undoubtably work very hard, but you’ll feel like you’re spinning your wheels. Even worse, you might do these tasks in lieu of the Box 2 items until they become full-fledged emergencies. Lastly, you’ll feel like you’re not really in control of your life and that you’re being “used” by others.
The Not Urgent, Not Important Box
These are absolute time wasters that erode value rather than create it. Distractions like watching television or checking your Instagram likes eat away the time you have to focus on important tasks. Taking a nap is a better use of time than randomly surfing the internet, because at least you’re resting and restoring some energy. Literally doing nothing brings more value to you than constantly checking social media memes or random YouTube videos.
Granted, platforms like Facebook, YouTube, or Instagram do have their uses. But it goes without saying that there are many rabbit holes that you can go down on the internet. An effective person would do well to keep a good watch over the amount of time spent doing Box 4 activities.
Let’s make a D.E.A.L
You can make more time for Box 2 activities by getting rid of as many Box 3 and Box 4 tasks as possible. You can do this by remembering the acronym D.E.A.L:
D stands for Define the Problem: What exactly are you looking to do? In this case, the mission is to maximize time in order to focus on Box 2 activities. This means drawing or printing out your own Urgency-Importance box and identifying for yourself what’s important.
E stands for Eliminate: Once you’ve identified what’s non-essential to your mission, then you will need to find ways to eliminate them.
Eliminating Phone Distractions: The first thing I recommend is to disable as many notifications on your smart phone as possible. The default for most apps is to buzz you when someone likes your tweet and those only serve as distractions. A function I really like on my iPhone is the “do not disturb” mode. It turns off all notifications and silences all phone calls and text messages. The difference between this and “airplane” mode is that “do not disturb” still keeps your phones internet capability on. You’ll still be checking your phone from time to time, but the difference is that you are in control of when you’re going to check your phone and not the other way around.
Be sure to set up a “do not disturb” white list for family members in the event that they need to contact you in an emergency.
Eliminating Emails: Many have found it effective to batch the task of checking email. This simply means limiting email checking to only once or twice a day. Instead of trying to keep up with your inbox at all times of the day, devote a good 15-20 minutes taking care of all email inquiries once in the late morning, and perhaps once more in the late afternoon near the end of the day. You’ll find that 90% of your email inbox will either 1) not need your input or 2) solve itself before the end of the day. With batching, you will prevent yourself from being pulled into superfluous conversations.
Eliminating Small Talk: during phone calls, learn how to get to the point. A lot of people find it weird to get to the point without first making small talk. Avoid asking questions like “what’s new” or “how’s it going?” They are pleasantries anyways– at best you’re going to get a “nothing much” and at worst you’re inviting the other person to go on a 15 minute tangent. I prefer starting off my phone call with “I was doing [insert task to give context] and I was wondering if you could [request].” I’ve found that skipping the small talk and getting to the point is completely acceptable and preferred by both parties so that we’re not wasting each other’s time with chit-chat.
If someone calls for you either in person or over the phone and asks “how’s it going,” you can simply reply with “oh I was in the middle of something. What’s up?/How can I help you?” Again, you’re eliminating any chance for small talk and you’re prompting the other person to get to their request.
A means to Automate. The goal of automation is to set something up so you don’t ever have to think about it again. This involves installing routines that will further reduce the time spent on non-important tasks.
Clothing can be automated by pre-planning what you’re going to wear the night before so you don’t have to spend time deciding what to wear to work.
It’s not a surprise that a lot of high performers end up wearing the same outfit day in and day out. Guys like Steve Jobs, Bill Belicheck, or Mark Zuckerberg are so busy with their jobs that they really can’t be bothered with outfit variety.
Screening out phone calls can be further automated by using an app such as Hiya that will automatically filter out telemarketers or scam phone calls.
Automation really applies to anything that occurs regularly and cannot be eliminated. Spend a few hours at the beginning of the week to plan out what you’re going to eat for the week, what you’re going to wear, and if you’re going to try to exercise (answer: yes). Once figured out, then you can get exactly what you need from the grocery store, pick out all your outfits for the week (for me it’s usually the same hoodie day in and day out. I try to channel my inner Mark Zuckerberg), and throw your gym bag in the car (if you have to go all the way home to get your gym stuff, you’re not going to make it to the gym).
L means to Liberate: This means getting yourself out of the loop. This usually means to outsource or delegate this task out to someone else. In the office, this usually means training others to doing lower level tasks.
In our office, we design extremely complicated pipe systems whereby we have to take into account constructability, availability of parts, and serviceability of the system after its assembled. We’re talking huge 24″ diameter steel pipes. To give a little perspective, it takes about an hour of time to prep and weld just one inch of pipe. If you do a bit of math, a 24″ pipe has a circumference of 72″, which means it would take the better part of 72 man-hours to simply weld two pieces of pipe together. At a rate of $100/hour, simply the labor cost might be over $7000. Every unnecessary weld can cost thousands of dollars, not to mention wasted time. Mistakes are even costlier, as the cost for change orders can be as much as triple the normal rate!
I only mention this to emphasize the degree of what an “important task” might be. The senior guys really need to focus all their attention on this high level stuff. Lower level tasks, such as designing smaller pipe systems, modeling pipe fittings, or 2D dimensional drawings are best delegated lower level staff.
Delegating takes a lot of training and patience in the front end, but it will multiply your time and productivity in the back-end. For example, let’s just assume that you’re a senior designer and it takes you 10 minutes to process a piece of information into a database. Over the course of 50 work weeks, this task uses up 2500 minutes of your time (assuming 5 days x 50 weeks in a year of working). But let’s assume that you have an assistant that you want to train. You might have to invest an entire morning to train your assistant to do a simple 10 minute task. But after your assistant has mastered the task, now you don’t ever have to worry about it again. So with an investment of 4 hours, or 240 minutes, you just delegated a task that would have other wise used up 2500 minutes of time. Over the course of a year, you will have just freed up 2,260 minutes (2500 – 240). 4 hours of invested training resulted in almost a whole extra week of time!
High performers are overwhelmingly proactive in their thinking as opposed to reactive. They get all the important stuff taken care of before it becomes urgent and thus they make the best decisions possible. There are many strategies to maximize our time and energy and the urgency-importance matrix is is a great starting off point. I’ve read a bunch of different articles, distilled out what I thought was useful, and then smashed them all together into my own strategy. I will have my sources posted below for more in-depth reading. Undoubtedly you’ll be able to formulate your own strategy that works best for you.