August 2012

Managing Time: A Framework for Making Smarter Choices with How You Spend that Time

by Jay W. Vogt

Your goal in time management is to spend time on the activities worth doing, and then to do those activities efficiently. This sounds simple, yet most of us struggle every day with a wealth of choices that make it difficult to decide how to make the best use of our time.

Matrix that Maps Importance and Urgency

One straightforward tool will transform how you think about time and help you make smarter choices. That tool is a four-cell matrix developed by best-selling author Stephen Covey in his classic book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey understands that some tasks are more urgent than others, while some are also more important than others. The dynamic tension between urgency and importance characterizes just about every task you’ll face, with that framework setting up the following creative tension:

  High Urgency Low Urgency
High Importance Fight fires Build for the future
Low Importance Jump at the bell Escape

Activities that are urgent and important are definitely worth doing. Still, when we’re at them, we feel like we’re fighting fires. Activities that are important, but not urgent, help us build for the future. Activities that feel urgent, but really aren’t important, make us jump at the bell, more out of habit than real need. Lastly, when we choose activities that are neither urgent nor important, we’re clearly in the mood to escape.

Fight Fires

The activities in this quadrant are both important and urgent—things like “crises, pressing problems, deadline-driven projects, meetings and preparations.” These have to be done—no argument there. Deliver the project on time, feel the adrenaline, and be a hero. Save the day, right? The only problem is that adrenaline works like a drug, and can be habit-forming. In the long run, it’s not good for you or the organization. The biggest problem with fighting fires is that it keeps us so busy that we can’t build for the future—and without investing in supports that take time to build and yield long-term benefits, we’ll never get out of the burning forest.

Build for the Future

The activities in this quadrant are important, but not urgent—things like “preparation, prevention, values clarification, planning, relationship building, true re-creation and empowerment.” They’re like exercise, meditating and/or eating well. You can always skip a day, or week, and maybe even a month, without immediate dire effects—but make such skipping a habit and your miraculous body will rebel in sickness and stress. Now there’s a fire to fight! These activities help us build for the future. We invest time in them, and they are the systems that prevent crises in the first place. We say, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” That translates as, “An ounce of building for the future is worth a pound of fighting fires.”

Jump at the Bell

The activities in this quadrant are urgent, but not important—things like “interruptions, some phone calls/email/reports/meetings, many popular activities, and many proximate, pressing matters.” If the phone rings, you answer it, right? Maybe not—it sounds urgent, but it may not be important. If you are working a deadline or having a great conversation with a colleague about reinventing the way you work, let the machine take it. Ditto when you having a family dinner at home—that is relationship time; keep it sacred. Build a boundary between you and these urgent, unimportant interruptions.


The activities in this quadrant are not urgent, and not important either—things like “trivia, busywork, some telephone calls, excessive TV and other time wasters.” What’s your favorite? Come on, be honest! Frankly, most of us are so stressed from fighting fires all day that we need some escape time just to feel normal again. They go together like a drink and a smoke—and are just as good for you! OK, have fun, but be mindful here—do these by choice, not by habit.

Using the Matrix to Gain Control of Your Work Life

First, become aware of how you spend your time. Notice which quadrant you are spending time in—moment to moment. Then, bring reflection and choice into your work life—set priorities for how you want to use your time, and, step by step, start making choices consistent with those priorities.

Jay W. Vogt is an organizational development consultant and author of Recharge Your Team—The Grounded Visioning Approach. Learn more at