by Allison Aboud Holzer

Harvard Professor Tal Ben-Shahar in his book Happier defines “time poverty” as “the feeling that one is constantly stressed, rushed, overworked, behind.” Many of us feel this way every day with our work and personal obligations; even students suffer from “time poverty” as they strive to meet the competing demands of standardized tests, grades and extracurricular activities. There are often times so many different commitments vying for our time and attention, it can be challenging to tackle them all. This is when an organizational framework comes in handy.

Fast Company recently published an article called “Outstanding Performers Focus on Important but Not Urgent Tasks.” This article outlines a simple way to prioritize commitments in a personally meaningful way. This organizational strategy, originating from Steven Covey, places tasks in one of four quadrantswt_ch4_g_work_matrix based on their urgency and importance (see table below). Generally, urgent tasks are ones that are time sensitive and imposed on you by a circumstance (or sometimes, boss!). Important tasks, on the other hand, are meaningful ones that help you achieve your personal goals and passions. Let’s look more closely at each of these four quadrants:

  1. Important and Urgent – it’s hard to imagine forgetting to feed the dog (or children), celebrate a birthday, or meet as essential work deadline. These sorts of tasks, both urgent and important, are top priority and rarely forgotten: emergencies, meetings, and deadline driven commitments are a few examples.

  1. Important but Not Urgent – tasks that fall into this quadrant are ones that advance our personal goals without being deadline driven. Ironically, while these tasks contribute the most to our personal and professional fulfillment, they are the usually the first to be overlooked because of their non-urgent nature. Examples of tasks that fall into this quadrant are: vocational planning, exercise, cooking, relationship building, and personal and professional growth.

  1. Urgent but Not Important – when Quadrant II is being neglected it’s usually a result of Quadrant III, Urgent tasks that are Not Important. These sorts of tasks demand our attention without contributing to our personal goals: interruptions, phone calls, text messages, voice mails, emails, Facebook, Twitter, work meetings, reports, and people or projects requiring immediate attention.

  1. Not Important and Not Urgent – sometimes Not Important and Not Urgent tasks, such as trivial hobbies, time wasters, “escape” activities, and busywork, can also detract from Quadrant II. Not Important and Not Urgent activities can provide us with much needed downtime; however, too much focus on this quadrant can be detrimental to our personal and professional growth.

“Time poverty” occurs when focus is placed heavily on quadrants I, III, and IV without enough attention on II. Unfortunately, since businesses and schools typically focus on the Urgent, it becomes our responsibility to prioritize the Important! Without our intentional planning, these tasks will gradually, over time, fall through the cracks.

Interestingly, many religions build in time for Quadrant II through holidays,  services, and rituals. The spirit of the Sabbath, for example, is to commit a day of the week to restoring and building relationships and community. Outside of religion, though, what can you do to make sure Quadrant II does not get overlooked?

Take some time to reflect and write down as many tasks as possible that fall into your Quadrant II. For each one of these tasks, assign yourself a block of time each day or week that you devote to cultivating it, removing all other distractions. Then, boycott your Quadrant III (cell phone, Facebook, Twitter, text messaging) outside of certain pre-assigned blocks of time. Intentionally create more space for the things that really matter to you and minimize the time you spend on distractions.

Now, with that in mind, I love you guys and I love writing this blog, but I think it’s time for some QT with my family…