Professor Stephen R. Covey

This is the first in a series of articles looking at identifying your core values and strengths and developing a life plan that fits with these. This article will deal with how to clear a bit of time and space to get started.

In his book “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” (1), Stephen R Covey poses the following questions

“Question 1: What one thing could you do (you aren’t doing now) that if you did on a regular basis, would make a tremendous positive difference in your personal life?
Question 2: What one thing in your business or professional life would bring similar results?”

His book describes the importance of developing a “holistic, integrated, principle-centred approach” to your personal and professional life and Covey helps the reader work out what their core values are so that future career and personal growth will be aligned to these values.

But how are you going to make time in your busy life to bring these changes in? Many of us caught up in the business of Life find there is never enough time to do all that we need to do as it is, and the things that we would like to do, that enrich us, seem to fall off the bottom of the list. You may feel the answer is to try to do everything a bit faster or to sleep a bit less, or skip lunch but none of these really helps in the long run and there is danger of burn out or chronic illness from pushing yourself too hard for too long.

Stephen Covey’s book draws on years of experience as a business coach to identify and describe seven habits of highly effective people. He argues persuasively that we will be most effective when we work from our core values which underpin our strengths. As you adopt and develop these habits it will help you to develop your career in a holistic, balanced way using your core values. It will take some time and self-reflection to work out what these are so this article will deal with becoming more effective in dealing with what we currently have to do.

If your life is as busy as mine was when I was juggling academic career, young family, husband, mother-in-law, house and garden I suggest you start with effective time management. I’ve read books and attended time management workshops over the years which tended to suggest having a “To Do” list which you could refresh each day and list your key priorities. This approach tended to focus on business or professional life and seemed to assume there would be someone else in the background dealing with all the other things in life that wouldn’t even make it onto the To Do list, like shopping, washing, ironing, gardening, bath time with the children. One childfree woman I met at one of these time management workshops asserted that the time spent ironing her silk work shirts was quality thinking time. Meanwhile I had found that if shirts and blouses were hung up as soon as the tumble drier had finished its cycle they didn’t need to be ironed and once my husband and daughters complained they weren’t as nice as if they were freshly ironed I got them to do them for themselves.

Many women I know found this approach didn’t work for them as they ended up with so many To Do lists for the different areas of their lives that they often had a list of the lists! Covey suggests a more holistic approach with work and personal priorities included; if work and personal life run in separate diaries it is too easy to lose track and end up needing to be in two or even three places at the same time.

Another useful book I have found is “Getting Things Done” (2), by David Allen. Key to his approach is also to have everything you need to do captured on paper then you don’t need to waste energy trying to remember if there is something you need to do now to prepare for next Friday. His approach also helps you to prioritise. He argues that by decluttering your mind you become less stressed and more focussed and productive. His approach is useful for developing processes to deal more effectively with tasks once they have been put into the 4 quadrants.

Getting started – making time
Step 1 Write down everything you need to do in any order. If you have forgotten something add it later.

Step 2 On a large sheet of paper draw a vertical and a horizontal line that cross to create 4 equal quadrants and number them as in figure 1. Everything on your list will go in to one of these quadrants. Everything above the horizontal line is Important, everything below is Unimportant. Everything to the left of the vertical line is Urgent, everything to the right is Not Urgent. If everything is in quadrant 1 you must be about to go into meltdown!

Figure 1 - Showing the 4 fields of the Time Management Matrix

Only you can decide what will go into each quadrant as the priorities will reflect your personal values but the key words in each sector, shown in Figure 2 will help you decide.

Urgent activities tend to be visible, attention grabbing and give us a sense of achievement, they are activities and situations we ‘react’ to. They deal with ‘management’. Important activities will be congruent with your own or the company values so contribute more to ‘leading’ and these require us to be ‘proactive’.

Quadrant 1. Urgent and Important.
This is crisis management territory, dealing with immediate deadlines, firefighting, reacting to others’ demands, especially your boss’s. It is filled with things that can’t be put off. This quadrant is task and achievement oriented and falls in the realms of ‘managing’ well or badly. It can be exhilarating and satisfying for achievement oriented people to operate in this quadrant as they clock up successes snatched from the jaws of failure and I believe it can become an addictive way to operate running on adrenalin. People who spend too much time operating here frequently escape to Quadrant 4 for a bit of mindless achievement like deleting emails or doing filing.

Quadrant 3. Urgent but Not Important
We seem to be programmed to prioritise urgent things. In this quadrant we generally find ourselves reacting to other people’s demands and interruptions, answering phone calls, emails, texts, mail. Some meetings and reports fall here also and we have to be wary of popular activities that lie here that seduce us into believing that they are urgent and important. It’s probably not as satisfying as dealing with Quadrant 1 urgent and important activities because we may be aware that these Quadrant 3 activities are keeping us from other, more important ones, but we feel obliged to deal with them because they are important to someone else. This can lead to a sense of being out of control. Secretaries and Personal Assistants often find themselves operating in this quadrant. They have tasks they are meant to complete but of necessity have to field constant interruptions and requests on behalf of their manager without any sense of control.

Quadrant 2. Not Urgent but Important
The kind of tasks you find in here are strategic, long term planning, background reading, ground work, self-development, feeding the soul, quality time with family and friends, hobbies, writing a grant or business proposal, planning a holiday, career planning, updating your CV, recognising new opportunities, recreation. Time spent here helps someone to be more organised, more effective and more successful.
This is the quadrant you should be working from most of the time as it contains the short and long term activities that will lead to greater effectiveness and help you achieve your goals.

Quadrant 4. Not Urgent and Not Important
Again this quadrant tends to be filled with other people’s demands, answering phone calls, mail, emails, and texts. It can be irritating and frustrating to deal with these activities. They would be low priority items on a To Do list but the danger is we often spend time on them simply so we can make the list shorter. We can relish the sense of achievement from powering through lots of items on the list, maybe answering lots of emails or clearing out the in box. We have to be careful because this quadrant provides us with displacement activity when we get too stressed from too much Quadrant 1 activity and any sense of achievement is spurious. Someone spending too much time here is likely to fail to meet productivity targets and if they manage to keep their job they are unlikely to progress.

Figure 2 - Showing the 4 fields of the Time Management Matrix with typical activities

Setting Priorities
How often do you start a day with a couple of important things to do, and by the end of the day you feel as if your feet haven’t touched the ground but you didn’t even get started on what you had planned. After a few days of this, your important task becomes urgent as a deadline looms and you end up having to stay up all night or to miss an evening out or time with family to get things finished. This would be an example of Quadrant 2 activity being neglected until it became Quadrant 1.
If you want to become more effective and more successful, the most important quadrant is Quadrant 2 since this is the one that holds your dreams and aspirations and long term goals. It is also the one that is most likely to be squeezed out by the urgent activities we can get addicted to. This is where setting the priorities of the 4 quadrants becomes key.

Bringing about change
You can’t bring about change by doing more of the same, even if you do it faster, longer, harder. At best all you can hope to achieve is greater output at the same level, which will bring burn out closer. The first thing to do is to start to reduce the amount of time you spend on Urgent things in Quadrant 3 to make more space for and time to identify core values and aspirations. This may take a lot of self-discipline as you will lose the positive stroking of helping other people and of achieving outcomes. Once you identify your core values it may become easier as your choices and decisions should all be congruent with your values.
Let’s focus on work first. How many emails do you receive in a typical day? And how many of them are really important? Does your email ‘ping’ every time a new message comes in? If so do you open it immediately in case it is important? This is typical Quadrant 3 activity. I used to feel I was being very efficient keeping on top of emails and opening every one, but I recognise now it was often displacement activity.

Turn off the sound so you can focus on what you are doing with fewer distractions. If possible, only check emails one or twice a day. If you need to be more reactive then perhaps check them every couple of hours. Only open important ones. You can deal with others once a week if at all. If you mistakenly overlook an important one you will get a reminder!

What about phone calls and texts? It may be possible to save time here also, depending how important it is to be contactable. Only you know. I work from home most of the time now and I often let the phone ring through to the answer service as I seem to receive two or three cold calls a day. It can also be difficult to persuade friends that just because you are at home it doesn’t mean you are available for a long phone call. You can use ring back or call screening, or get an answer machine so you won’t miss anything important.

Are there some meetings you don’t need to attend, or meeting reports or minutes you don’t need to read immediately? Be firm with yourself and it will become easier to be firm with other people. Many lecturers or tutors have office hours and refuse to see students at any other time but don’t take it to excess. I knew a lecturer once who had one hour a week for students, refused to see then at any other time and their attitude was if the student had a class at that time that was their bad luck. If it was really serious the student would cut the class. If you don’t want to be as draconian as that perhaps you can schedule times in the day or week when you must not be interrupted.

Now that you have created a grading system to prioritise work and reduced the time spent in Quadrant 3, it will be useful to devise a strategy to reduce the amount of time you spend on Quadrant 1 activities, and that allows you to progress your important Quadrant 2 projects so they don’t shift to Quadrant 1. David Allen has several good suggestions in his book “Getting Things Done”.

Effectively at this point the contents of the four quadrants are your ‘In Box’. Allan describes a process for getting to the bottom of ‘In’. The paradigm shift is to realise you don’t have to actually do everything to get to the bottom of your In Box. Rather than start at the top and work your way down the list, Allen says the key is to decide what to do with each item and when. What is it? What does it mean? What do you need to do with it?
The key questions

Then the first key question that will start to make the difference is:-

By this stage of the process you will have ditched or filed most of the Quadrant 4 content and some of the other items in the other three quadrants will also have been dealt with. The remaining ‘projects’ can now be assessed for the next actions and to develop a plan with a timetable for the various steps or actions, often with dates for completion to fit in with the project end date and to achieve the desired outcome.

Again it is worth checking the 3 D’s of Do it, Delegate it or Defer it to see if others can help you with any stages.

Your projects list and in box need to be updated regularly, perhaps once a week. It is worth considering doing this at the end of the week, then you can come in and get straight into productive work at the start of the next week.

Of course the most important thing to schedule each week is some planning time and some self-development time. You can work out what form will work best for you, whether it is meeting one or two other people to network and peer mentor each other. It can certainly help with sticking to targets for doing things if you have to report back to someone else. Recently I made an agreement with someone that I would go to find out about volunteering opportunities and they would apply for a job they had been talking about. Later we each admitted that our agreement gave us the impetus to keep going when we felt discouraged.

The next article will look at identifying strengths and core values.

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References
1 The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen R Covey published Franklyn Covey Co, 1999
2 Getting Things Done – How to Achieve Stress-free Productivity, David Allen, Piatkus, 2006

I have experienced many of the key aspects of a women scientist’s career, short term contracts, dual career, working mother, chemistry lectureship, redundancy, bullying, setting up as a consultant, successful research in women and science issues that doesn’t count. I’ve retrained as a colour therapist and life coach and I am a healer.

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