• Joe Cooke

Prioritizing

My day went sideways this morning at eight when I stepped into a lake of water covering most of the kitchen floor. And I’d just put on clean white socks, too.


But let me get back to that.



I am a huge fan of Stephen Covey’s four-quadrant approach to prioritizing activities. If you search for it, you’ll find a ton of information, graphics, memes, instructions, and even criticisms.


In any case, if I had only taken that one thing away from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, it would have changed my life. In fact, it did, and it has, and it continues to do so. However, it’s not always the perfect paradigm.


Before I disassemble it, here’s the gist of Covey’s four-box matrix: it aligns what you consider to be important with what you consider to be urgent.


Quadrant I tasks (the northwest box) are activities that are both urgent and important, like the dishwasher leaking all over the kitchen floor, or a materials request that is a day late, or a required state form F-1 that is going to be late, or bills that need to be paid today or the vendor will add a late fee. Three of those four examples are QI of our own making. Can you guess which one is a legitimate, not-our-fault QI emergency?


Quadrant II tasks (the northeast box) are activities that are not at all urgent, but still important, like writing blog posts, getting a college degree, working out at the Y. Referring back to my QI examples, paying bills, filing the form F-1, and the materials requests were all at one time in Quadrant II, but ignoring them shifted them into QI.


Covey says that you will be most effective if you spend 80% of your time in QII where things are important but not urgent, and the other 20% on fixing the dishwasher (QI).

QIII are activities that are urgent but not important, and QIV are activities that are not urgent and not important. I stopped tracking those quadrants long ago as I realized I had no business spending any time there at all.


But wait, you say. Sometimes I just have to relax, watch some TV, read a book. Yep. Me, too. But only if those things are restorative in some way. Only if they are QII activities. Go ahead and mourn the loss of your vegetative time-outs. You won’t miss them when you find out what you can do with that time in QII – not urgent but important.


That’s what this post is all about: getting out of QIII and QVI and mostly out of QI and into the zone of meaningful personal accomplishment. That’s all Quad II.


Two things though—how do you decide what is important, and how do you decide what is urgent?


One slight modification I’ve made to Covey’s matrix is to, well…get rid of it. I think it’s a good starting point, and it’s not a bad exercise to write down everything you do in a day in one of those four boxes so you can analyze your time honestly and completely, but eventually if you want to accomplish your dreams and goals, you are going to have to give up the bottom half of that grid – the unimportant. Why do it if it is not important?


I have some blank spaces in my calendar these days for rest and recovery. Last year I battled a form of bone marrow cancer that left me pretty beat. I’m in full, molecular remission now, but my blood counts are still low, my immune system is compromised, and I’m running at about 40-60% of my pre-cancer energy levels. So, at various times during the day, I have to sit down in my comfy chair and rest. It’s QII activity. Just doing nothing for a half-hour or an hour. I check Facebook and Instagram. I read, but I mostly try to just rest with no stimulus. It means that I am even more attentive when I am feeling productive, so that I am certain that what I am doing is, as much as possible, working toward long-term goals. It’s ironic that knowing that my life expectancy is statistically much shorter than it was before cancer, that now I am even more intent on establishing, pursuing, and accomplishing my long-term goals.


The point is: get rid of anything that is not important. That then presumes that you and I have figured out what is important. I like to think of “important” in this case to be synonymous with “consequential” and “significant”. In fact, my favorite way to frame my activities during the day are in terms of consequence. It works the same for positive results as it does for negative, but for shock value let me go with a negative example of natural consequences (cause and effect).

I say I want to lose 20 pounds and get fit; but, I don’t go to the gym because I’m busy (maybe I chose to play a video game instead) and I eat French toast for breakfast, a hamburger for lunch, and steak and potatoes for dinner, with some snacks in between and maybe a milk shake or soda pop. A few months later I have put on weight, not lost weight. This seems really obvious seen from a larger perspective, but it’s not so obvious when you are living in the moment, day by day.

By the way, it is not paradoxical to live in the moment, but for the future.


Consequence = importance. If your goal is to start your own business, then learning as much as you can about your chosen industry is important. Put that in QII, and then break it down into activities. You want to become a lawyer? Break it down. You’ll have to go to law school. That means that you will need an appropriate undergraduate degree (pre-law is good, but so is history and English and even a liberal arts degree). That means you’ll have to research schools, apply, enroll, study, take tests. Only the tests should be in Quadrant I.


If you don’t pay attention to the tasks in QII, they will either move in to QI or they will just sit out there and never get done.


Oh, the dishwasher. I’m running a test load now. The drain hose must have been clogged. The bottom was full of water, but I disconnected the power and the drain hose from the garbage disposal and pulled the machine out and fussed around with it for a while. Some water drained onto the floor so I put the end in a water glass and then I bumped the glass with my hip and tipped it over so I mopped up more water. I blew air into the disconnected drain hose and then I ran the pump and the pump worked perfectly, overflowing the glass and dumping water all over the floor again before I could get the end of the hose into the sink. I am not an appliance repair person, but I somehow got the thing unplugged. I was ready to call an expert, but also, I like a good puzzle. That was maybe an hour and a half of my day, spent in Quadrant I, along with some other tasks that I’d put off until they were urgent.


Still, I got a lot done in QII and I’m grateful for that. The more time we spend in QII, the more time we have available for QI. Conversely, the more QI activities we are attending to, the less time we have to spend on QII. It’s definitely a balancing act, and for a lot of us, our jobs land somewhere in between the quadrants. My wife, Katie, is an administrator at a middle school (one, by the way, that we created from the ground up as the result of years of Quadrant II activities). A lot of her day could be classified as QI—there’s no way to get around that right now. For us teachers, too, our working day classes are both urgent and important. Still, we can and we must find time to work on QII activities, both for our future well-being and the well-being of the world. For that reason, the quadrants are a bit too black and white, but really, just tweaking the definition of the word “urgent” can relieve some of the pressure to always be working on long-term goals, and shifting perspective to more of a continuum rather than one-or-the-other can help, too.


The questions I like to ask are these: what can I do today to free up time tomorrow? What can I do today to make my life better tomorrow, and the day after that, and the days after that? What can I do to make my kid’s lives better? What are the long-term goals that I’m just mad about (in a good way, like, “I’m just mad about you.”) and what do I have to do today to make those dreams come true? The more I think about those little, daily tasks, the more urgent they feel to me. They move from the far east edge of my consciousness toward the western edge where only things like the dishwasher dumping water on the kitchen floor gets priority, and only then for a moment.


I got a lot done today, even though I spent about half my day on QI-type items (I marked each item on my calendar/to-do list today as QI or QII; even though they are a bit too constrictive, Covey’s quadrants serve as a handy kind of shorthand).


Three tips:


1. Track your time on a daily basis – do a time audit. Do it for a least a week. Mark everything by quadrant. Just do it. I know you have an internal critic telling you it’s a waste of time. Ask yourself exactly whose voice that is.


2. Calendar almost everything on your to-do list. It’s annoying at first, but like the time audit, eye-opening and it will help you determine both where you have spent your time and where you will spend it. As you update it during the day, it will also tell you how good you are at sticking to the plan, and it can serve as your time audit. Two birds with one stone: how efficient!


3. Look at how you are using your time. Don’t spend any time in QIII or QIV. There’s nothing there for you. Remember, if you’re not working your own plan, you’re working someone else’s.

As Stephen Covey says, “The key is not to prioritize what's on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.”



For entrepreneurs and other business (and not-for-profit) leaders, check out the following quick read: “First Things First: The 5 Secrets to Prioritization”, by Jake Gibson (co-founder of NerdWallet), Entrepreneur magazine, July 22, 2014, accessed February 6, 2019, https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/235768

©2017 by Joe Cooke