Most people find time pressures and deadlines at work very stressful. While you cannot always control the demands of your work environment, how you arrange your use of time can help promote efficiency and prevent problems, therefore lessening your time pressures and concomitantly lowering your stress level. Time-management strategies have evolved along with the demands of the workplace. The first generation consisted of notes and checklists. The second wave involved appointment books, recognizing the need for future planning and allowing for better scheduling methods. The third level included the important ideas of prioritization, goal setting, and planning. But some people chafed at systems that scheduled them, feeling they were restricted and lacked flexibility. Therefore, an emerging fourth generation emphasizes not the managing of time per se, but rather managing yourself in time more effectively.

Thus, there are many methods for time management that all have some useful aspects. But we would like to introduce to you one fourth-generation system, namely that put forth by Stephen Covey in his landmark books, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (1989) and First Things First (1994). Covey takes a somewhat different approach to time management than traditional systems. He emphasizes organizing your schedule around priorities rather than prioritizing your schedule. He recommends that you divide your work tasks and projects into four categories or quadrants, as illustrated in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Stephen Covey's Time-Management Matrix

Importance and Urgency

The two aspects that define any activity are its urgency and its importance. Things that are urgent, such as a ringing phone, demand to be attended to immediately, or at least very soon. Urgent matters are often popular or important to others, but they may or may not be important for you. Covey further recommends that you define importance based on how closely an activity is tied to your goals and desired results, as well as to your overall mission in life. Urgent activities call for a quick reaction. Tasks that are important, but not urgent, typically require more initiative and proactivity. If you have not defined your goals and therefore are unclear as to what is important to you, it is very easy to be swallowed up by urgency.

Quadrant I tasks, both urgent and important, typically take the form of crises or problems that require immediate attention. Although we all have some Quadrant I activities in our work lives, many people are consumed with Quadrant I work and are beset with problems all day long. While the demands of any quadrant could potentially be stressful, clearly Quadrant I activities contain the greatest potential for raising your stress level. The more time you spend in Quadrant I, the more it appears to expand, because you are not taking the time to be proactive and prevent future problems. When you are overly immersed in Quadrant I work, you tend to escape to the more mindless, easy Quadrant IV activities. While that might provide a temporary breather, it does little to set the stage for a meaningful decrease in Quadrant I and its inherent stress.

When people spend a lot of time in Quadrant III activities, urgent but not important, it is usually because they assume that these tasks are really important and lie in Quadrant I. This is based on being influenced by the expectations of others, because the matter is urgent or important for them. That does not necessarily mean that it need be urgent or important for you unless it fits with your workplace goals.

Quadrant IV activities, often termed busywork, are often pleasant and offer an opportunity to take a break. Be wary of spending the majority of your time in Quadrant III or Quadrant IV, for that leads to irresponsibility. Successful, effective people minimize time spent in Quadrant III or Quadrant IV, saving that work for mini-breaks because, urgent or not, those tasks not important.

The key to effective time management is to maximize time spent on Quadrant II activities, which are important but not urgent. This involves work that is proactive and preventive, such as long-term planning, networking and building business relationships, establishing a business plan and personal mission statement, preventive maintenance and preparation (along with maintaining your health and personal relationships), and so on. These are all things we want to do, and know we should do, but tend to put off because they are not deadline-driven. But only by engaging in Quadrant II activities can you shrink the stressful Quadrant I, by preventing crises and problems in the first place, thereby lowering your stress level.

Initially, the only way to spend more time on Quadrant II activities is to subtract time from Quadrants III and IV. Obviously you cannot ignore Quadrant I, but it will begin to diminish once you increase your Quadrant II proactivity. In order to lessen time spent in Quadrants III and IV, you have to learn to say no to some activities (even if they are important or urgent to others) or to delegate.

A ringing phone is a typical example of a Quadrant III situation. It urgently demands that you interrupt your work to answer and respond, but often the calls are only important to the caller. The perfect example of this is telephone solicitation. We have lost count of how many times our work has been interrupted by someone trying to sell us something they think we desperately need, be it a new long-distance phone service, a new credit card, computer supplies, and so on. These salespeople are fast-talking and know every trick in the book to keep us on the phone. We are amazed by how many of our colleagues patiently sit through sales pitches and then list all the reasons why they are not interested. Meanwhile, five to ten minutes was wasted. Our method for handling such calls is short and sweet. We nicely and diplomatically state, “Sorry, we don't accept telephone solicitation,” and then hang up immediately without waiting for a response. Over the years we have probably saved weeks of valuable time by ducking such time wasters.

Your Personal Mission Statement

Stephen Covey strongly recommends that each person develop his or her own personal mission statement or philosophy that can help determine priorities, and, therefore, assist managing time more effectively. This mission statement needs to focus on the kind of person you want to be (your character) and what you want to contribute or accomplish, along with the values and principles upon which you desire to base and guide your life. This philosophy is akin to your own personal constitution and can function as the basis for making major life decisions as well as everyday decisions. It can empower you with a guiding set of values in the midst of change or stress. Your mission statement needs to reflect your uniqueness as a person.

Covey reminds us that one important key to coping with change (and therefore stress) is to have a changeless core, or sense of who you are, what you are about, and what you value. This enables you to flow more easily with change and to determine what directions you should take and what is important. Having a sense of mission creates a linchpin of your own proactivity. It gives you the vision and values from which to guide your life and helps you to set your short- and long-term goals. As previously indicated, developing your mission statement is definitely a Quadrant II activity, but perhaps one of the most important ones you can ever do.

Additional Tips for Managing Your Time

  1. Use the 80/20 rule. Eighty percent of the benefit comes from doing 20 percent of the work. Figure out the most important and beneficial 20 percent and make that your priority to tackle first. Completing the important 20 percent first often expedites or simplifies completion of the remaining 80 percent of the work.

  2. Focus on one task at a time. People with problems managing their time often flit from one project to another or try to do several things simultaneously. The result is often delays, mistakes, and disorganization, which wastes rather than saves time. Uninterrupted concentration on a task, when possible, produces a better product in less time. Arrange your work space to minimize distractions.

  3. Don't try to do things perfectly; just focus on doing them well. Striving for perfection leads to fear of failure, procrastination, and having to do things at the last minute, all of which adds up to a potent recipe for stress.

  4. Pay attention to your body rhythms. Schedule difficult, challenging tasks for the times you are most alert and energetic. If you are a morning person, do the difficult, energy-consuming tasks early in the day. If you are a night person, save the challenging projects for the evening. Save the easy, routine tasks for times when your energy is at low ebb (midafternoon for many people).

  5. Use small chunks of time to complete quick, routine tasks. While waiting at the doctor's office, use that fifteen or twenty minutes to pay bills, read your mail, or balance your checkbook. If waiting in line, pull out a sheet of paper and make necessary lists (Scott, 1980).

  6. Learn to say no to low-priority items or requests, which only distract you from completing the work that is really important. Delegate if possible.

  7. Take short breaks to refresh and revitalize, particularly if you notice your concentration faltering. Sometimes engaging in a power nap, shutting your eyes for five to ten minutes and reclining in your chair, is all you need to perk up. Or take a five-minute walk around your workplace and step outside for some fresh air.

  8. All work and no play is a sure way to maximize stress. Make time for relaxing activities and fun. Don't be afraid to occasionally take a day off to recharge and revitalize yourself. We refer to this as a “mental health day,” taking a day off so as to prevent yourself from getting sick. Your energy for your work will increase as a result and you will therefore make much better use of time allotted for work.

  9. Deal with each piece of paper only once if possible. Each time you handle a piece of paper, do something to move it along. When in doubt, throw it out! Don't write when a phone call (typically quicker and cheaper) will do.

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