Take Control of Your Time

UPDATED: September 8, 2009
PUBLISHED: September 8, 2009

"I find that most people do not do long-term planning; rather, they plan for the very short-term and, because of it, are driven by the urgent."

Prioritization, an aspect of time management, means deciding what’s important and spending time on those priorities.

Small-business owners and entrepreneurs find prioritization particularly challenging because they are seduced by the urgent and that which is not important. They find those things that become pressing are proximate or popular and often have the appearance of importance but are really only urgent.

Half the people I teach acknowledge that half of their time is spent on urgent, not important, things. In classifying what we do in terms of both urgency and importance, I talk in my books The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and First Things First about four quadrants: Quadrant 1 is urgent, important; Quadrant 2 is nonurgent, important; Quadrant 3 is urgent, not important; and Quadrant 4 is nonurgent, not important. In research that we did with companies that have immeasurable influence on the development of quality control and management, we found most spent their time in Quadrant 2. The others spent their time in Quadrant 3—doing things that are urgent but not really that important. They know it and admit it. You might, too.

In order to spend more time on nonurgent and important matters, first develop a mission statement that has purposes and values clearly identified. This gives you the context for setting up long-term and short-term goals, as well as plans to achieve those goals.

The second habit in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is beginning with the end in mind. It’s about vision and is the start of your mission statement. Beginning at the end defines the larger criteria. You can decide on your top priorities based on that end. Once you have those top priorities and keep them as priorities, you will not be seduced into the constant flood of urgency.

Habit 3 is the physical creation of your defined purpose, values, roles and priorities. What are “first things”? First things are those things you, personally, find of most worth. If you put first things first, you are organizing and managing time and events according to the personal priorities you established in Habit 2, beginning with the end in mind.

Once you arrive at those top priorities for each role that you have in your life (business, personal, family, community service), you have the context from which to distinguish between what is important and what is simply urgent.

It doesn’t matter how smart or experienced you are, without a mission statement, you can still fall into the trap of focusing on what is urgent, rather than what is important. It’s so easy to be seduced by what’s pressing—by that which is proximate. An example: interrupting a family meeting for a phone call. Or another example: interrupting an extremely important meeting to send text messages and e-mail.

Technology is a great servant, but a bad master. It takes you from your focus. It has no prioritization associated with it.

To follow through on your highest priorities, make a long-term plan. Base that long-term plan (looking at the next two or three years) on your mission statement—your purpose and your values. I find that most people do not do long-term planning; rather, they plan for the very short-term and, because of it, are driven by the urgent.

Entrepreneurs get so easily drawn into looking at low-priority opportunities, rather than the kinds of opportunities that have tremendous business potential to reduce costs and increase income in a substantial and consistent way. Instead, they might focus on short-term savings or a new income stream.

One more thing: Avoid daily planning. You may adapt in a daily way, but the shortest unit of planning and prioritization is a week. In a week’s time, you can think through each of your roles and determine the most important things you are trying to accomplish that week in that role. If you get into daily planning, you’re driven by the urgent.

By spending your time in Quadrant 2 on nonurgent, important matters, you will live a more balanced existence. You have to recognize that not doing everything that comes along is OK. There’s no need to overextend yourself. All it takes is realizing that it’s alright to say no when necessary and then focus on your highest priorities.

Stephen R. Covey, named one of Time magazine’s 25 most influential Americans, is an organizational consultant, leadership expert and co-founder of FranklinCovey, a global professional services firm. He’s the best-selling author of several books, including his most famous, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.