Time Management – How Effective are You?

Perhaps former President Eisenhower’s method for prioritizing activities can help you, too.

As there are only 24 hours in any day, we must find ways to use them wisely. Some of us devote a large portion of these hours to work-related activities, yet struggle at times to accomplish what we had hoped. Others seem to invest fewer hours at their jobs, but somehow get more done. Those in this second group have the advantage of having learned how to effectively manage their time, ultimately allowing them to work smarter, not harder.

In simple terms, time management is the ability to use one’s time effectively to complete various tasks. Of course, the effective use of time may mean different things to different 
people, but there are some tested, basic time-management techniques that can guide us, and one of these is credited to Dwight Eisenhower, a very successful military commander and the 34th president of the United States. Eisenhower was so effective at time management that he found (or perhaps “created”) time to play golf during the planning of the D-Day invasion, which the average person likely would have found to be a highly stressful and all-consuming activity. 

Eisenhower used an “urgent/important principle” to guide him in effectively managing his time. This principle helps a person prioritize what he or she should do by determining which 
activities are important and which are just distractions. Eisenhower recognized that great time management means being effective as well as efficient, and as such, it is essential that one spends his or her time on things that are important and not just urgent.

The difference between important activities and urgent activities is:

  • Important activities have an outcome that leads to a person achieving his or her own goals.
  • Urgent activities demand immediate attention and are usually associated with achieving someone else’s goals. They are often the ones on which we concentrate, and they demand attention because the consequences of not dealing with them are immediate.

Eisenhower prioritized activities using the following matrix (with 1 being the highest priority and 4 the lowest):

Once activities are prioritized, Eisenhower believed they need to be addressed as follows:

1. Important and Urgent. It is difficult to argue that such activities should not receive the most attention, yet there are two distinct types of urgent and important activities: ones that you could not have foreseen and others that you’ve left until the last minute. You can reduce last-minute activities by planning ahead and avoiding procrastination; however, you cannot always predict or avoid some issues and crises. 

The best approach to time management of important and urgent activities is to leave some time in your schedule to handle the unexpected and unplanned.

2. Important, but Not Urgent. These are the activities that help you achieve your goals and complete important work. For effective time management, make sure you plan sufficient time to do these things properly, so that they do not fall into the urgent category. 

3. Not Important, but Urgent. Urgent-but-not-important activities prevent you from achieving your goals. A common source of these activities is other people. 

You should make an effort to reschedule or delegate such activities whenever possible. Sometimes, it’s appropriate to say no to people politely, or to encourage them to handle these activities themselves, making it clear that you can provide assistance if they get stuck.

4. Not Important and Not Urgent. These activities are distractions that prevent other, more important, activities from getting done. To help manage your time, you may be able to ignore or cancel many of them. If others want you to work on these activities, again, you can attempt to politely decline and explain your reasons. If you make your reasons clear to people, they may avoid approaching you with these types of activities in the future.

Try this exercise: Think about 10 or so activities that you have on your plate, and place them in the urgent/important matrix. How many of these are in the two important quadrants and how many are not? Perhaps finding alternate ways of handling the unimportant activities will allow you to become a more effective manager of your time.