Time Management

Here’s the assembly powerpoint about Time Management based on and indebted to the Stephen Covey book “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” (it’s incredibly readable and very powerful – I suggest you buy a copy.)

Let me start with the do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do caveat: I try hard myself to follow these rules and insofar as I am successful it is because I am managing to do so in some areas. But I consistently fail to manage this across the board, and where I do weakest as a professional and a person is where I don’t succeed in following these time management principles. I’m no saint. But I can pass this wisdom on to you guys without pretending I always get it right myself.

If you didn’t see the assembly, the powerpoint should read fairly obviously anyway – but if not, the point is this: be a Quadrant 2, not a Quadrant 1 person. This means: put the majority of your efforts into working on things which are of High Importance but LOW Urgency (rather than waiting until they have also acquired High Urgency.)

Once things are of High Urgency, they take more resources (time, effort and emotional energy) to do – this is inefficient and can build stress and hostility. For example, a task may not be able to be done as well at short notice (High Urgency) – or even completed at all – because:

  • you have too little time left to complete it fully or to a high quality standard
  • you have insufficient time left to try it, take time to reflect and then redevelop / revisit / rework it
  • resources you need to do it properly are often not available at short notice
  • it may be impossible to adopt a calm and steady approach to it under High Urgency time pressure (people try convince themselves that they are uniquely resistant to these issues of blood pressure, stress levels, and hormonal response – but no-one is)
  • each High Urgency thing on your list adds cumulative pressure to all the other stresses and you can become generally stressed and ineffective
  • by the time you are doing things at High Urgency, you are certainly being blunt and unco-operative with others (and probably damaging long-term working or personal relationships you will later need to depend on)
  • many or most tasks depend on some input from others – by the time things have reached High Urgency you either cannot get this input (incomplete task outcome) OR get a diluted version of it (poor quality task outcome) OR have to interfere with someone else’s better time management / call in a favour to get it done (damages relationships, again)
  • High Urgency feels compelling and can give the illusion that you’re working “at the cutting edge” / “at 110%” – but while it is occasionally good to pull out all the stops and prove your worth under pressure, this is not a sustainable way of working…
  • … and in addition, can accidentally promote a focus on Urgency-as-a-universal-good… so if you ever finish the quadrant 1 tasks (High Urgency, High Importance), instead of shifting to the productive quadrant 2 (Low Urgency, High Importance) you instead shift to the low productivity and high stress of quadrant 3 (High Urgency, Low Importance) because you’ve become fixated on pace and the appearance of work
  • … and can also make you push other people around you (who may be quietly effective quadrant 2 people) into less useful but more apparent quadrant 1 (or 3) activity
  • finally, and critically, by focusing on the High Urgency, High Importance tasks you are inevitably allowing the Low Urgency, High Importance tasks (i.e. the ones you still have time to complete to a high quality standard, without stress, and co-operatively with others) to run out of time and become High Urgency too – i.e. you’re trapping yourself in a cycle of failure, of constantly chasing your own tail.

To break this cycle, you may have to let some current High Urgency, High Importance things go at this stage. Apologise to anyone affected, explain your plan to reallocate the time they would have taken to High Importance but LOW Urgency tasks, and show (and be clear yourself!) how that will enable you to get ahead of yourself, to be achieving more efficiently, at a higher standard, well ahead of all deadlines. (And once you’ve got ahead of yourself, STAY THERE. Don’t lighten up and slip back into Urgency.)

Don’t ever wait to be chased to do things. When someone has the foresight to indicate a (Q2) task is beginning to become due, or will be soon – get to it in good time. Reward those who work in Q2 and encourage you to do so by working most closely with them. Ask people obsessed with Urgency to shift their focus, when working with you, to Q2, to placing Importance over Urgency.

A powerful question to ask is – If you just thought of this now and it’s so critical you need it immediately – can it really ever have been that Important in the first place? (Q1 things are often Q3 in disguise.)

Another powerful point to make it – If it’s worth doing at all (i.e. Important), it’s worth doing properly (i.e. not Urgently, i.e. do it Q2.) (And that may mean – “nice idea… we’ll build it into the planning and do it properly next time… let’s leave it this time.”)

These principles apply working both “up” and “down” – both completing your own work for someone (a manager, a teacher, a revision workload) and also when you are in charge of someone (as a team leader in school groupwork, for example.) Plan in good time. Effective working modes are actually calm and rarely rushed. Good productivity should be the norm, not something dependent on (quadrant 1) panic and Urgency.

Focus on Importance. Avoid Urgency. Be a Quadrant 2 person.

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