If You Struggle to Manage Your Time at Work, it’s Because You’re Not Doing This

The topic of productivity is never far from our thoughts here at EWS.

If we come across a way to help busy recruiters – and anyone else for that matter – to get more out of their working day, we’re only too happy to share it. So when we started reading up on an all-time great time management technique recently, we knew we’d found our latest blog topic.

If you often find your workdays swamped by a relentless squabble of competing tasks, this is the post for you.

Time management is a problem everywhere

First, the reassuring news. It isn’t just you. Time management issues are a massive deal across the world of work, said to cost £80bn a year in the UK alone. Employees at all levels in every job function are struggling to allocate their work time – hardly surprising given the potential for disruption and distraction in the modern workplace.

Ever get the feeling you’ve lost entire days bouncing between emails, meetings, firefighting, phone calls, interruptions and needless web browsing? You are by no means alone… but neither are you trapped. If you want to reclaim control of your time, you can start by reclaiming control of your priorities using Covey’s time management matrix.

This is a tried and trusted workload prioritisation tool based on the so-called Eisenhower Principle that:

There two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important.
The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.

Urgency vs. importance

The universal truth of this principle is that seemingly urgent tasks have a nasty habit of jumping the queue ahead of the truly important ones, meaning your time all too easily gets spent on the wrong things. Your challenge, and where Covey’s time management matrix helps, is in disentangling the quiet vitality of important tasks from the noisy clamour of urgent ones.

Here’s how the matrix looks:

Source: Stephen Covey, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

Every item on your to-do list fits into these four quadrants.

Quadrant 1 activities require immediate attention – they’re typically deadline-driven, time-sensitive or unexpected, with negative consequences if they aren’t carried out (the workplace equivalent of a crying baby or a kitchen fire).

Quadrant 2 contains long-term strategizing and development matters that easily get deprioritised but end up defining a successful organisation or career (e.g. relationship building, strategic planning, preparation, personal development).

Quadrant 3 items often call loudest for attention but rarely merit it – emails, phone calls, interruptions, needless meetings etc.

Quadrant 4 is for tasks that are neither important nor urgent – the wasted time, trivia and procrastination that litters a misspent workday. Hopefully you’re not spending much time here.

According to Covey’s model, the secret to effective time management is to spend as much time as possible in quadrant 2, since these are the tasks that map out future success and lead us to our goals. These planning, preparing and preventative activities don’t produce instant results, meaning they can feel difficult to account for and prioritise. And yet they are tasks that make good things happen in the long term. (The Asian Efficiency blog goes so far as to call quadrant 2 ‘The Quadrant of Extraordinary Productivity’.)

Prioritising isn’t easy

The problem with the average workday – maybe your workdays – is that too much time gets taken up in quadrants 1 and 3. The urgency of these tasks means they come with a flashing red light and blaring siren, demanding your time whether they’re worthy of it or not. (Even worse, they have a tendency to be in pursuit of someone else’s goal, not yours.)

By contrast, quadrant 2 items – the things you do that make best use of your time and ultimately add value to your organisation – require reflection, contemplation and foresight. You can’t resolve them in an afternoon and there are no immediate consequences if you don’t. Ironically, the tasks we as individuals need to prioritise are not the ones our Temple of Busy work culture does.

There’s an even bigger irony at work here. When you can find the time to plan ahead, you can avoid many future surprises, crises and time pressures before they arise. In other words, the more time you spend in quadrant 2, the fewer quadrant 1 activities will subsequently arise. So if you can develop the discipline and learn to say no to urgent-but-not-important quadrant 3 activities, and instead prioritise quadrant 2, those previously unswervable quadrant 1 activities will start to take care of themselves.

How to apply Covey’s matrix

Moving on to the most important matter of this post, how do you put the matrix into action in your own work? There are two main ways you can try. First, take your current to-do list and sort all of your activities into quadrants to clearly identify your priorities and get to work on them.

The second approach is to review your output in a weekly assessment. Make six blank copies of the matrix, and use five to list your tasks and activities for each workday, along with the time you spent on them. At the end of the week, you’ll summarise your week’s work by quadrant on the sixth sheet – giving you a clear picture of how well you’re using your time in pursuit of what really matters in your work.

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