One Woman Experiments: The Covey Time Management Matrix

Welcome to One Woman Experiments, where daring business women experiment with different parts of their business in order to find best practices. We hope these mini-experiments help improve your business and inspire you to test-drive new strategies. Have an experiment you want to test out and document? Check out our ideas and guidelines!

We were recently introduced to The Covey Time Management Matrix, which some people swear is hands-down the most effective tool for time management. Ashley Brooks of Brooks Editorial stepped up to test-drive using the matrix. Here are her thoughts and the outcome.

What is your experiment and why?

For nearly a month, I’ve been using the Stephen Covey matrix to determine which work gets done first, and what gets pushed to the back burner.

This productivity system is based on figuring out which tasks are urgent (need immediate attention) and which are important (don’t need to happen right away, but are necessary to achieve your professional goals).

It’s arranged as a graph with four quadrants. These quadrants are:

  1. Tasks with high urgency and high importance
  2. Tasks with low urgency and high importance
  3. Tasks with high urgency and low importance
  4. Tasks with low urgency and low importance

According to Covey, most people get stuck in a pattern of “firefighting” and only focusing on the most urgent tasks. I have to admit, I’m one of those people. By always placing the most urgent work first, I was never able to carve out time to focus on important things like business planning or writing an e-book. I was hopeful that this experiment would help me stay on track with my long-term goals.

Without sounding too much like middle school science class, tell us about your methodology.

At the end of each day, I list everything that’s still on my to-do list for the rest of the week. I decide how urgent and important each task is, then assign it to the quadrant that’s the best fit.

Using my list, I begin every day with high urgency, high importance tasks—like a client project with a looming deadline. From there, I need to evaluate my unimportant, urgent tasks (which Covey refers to as “interruptions”). If they’re not too time-consuming, I’ll take care of them right away. But if they’re bigger than that, I’ll try to reschedule or delegate the job so I can focus on more important tasks. This is also a good time to figure out why it’s so urgent. Is it because I procrastinated, or did I say “yes” to a last-minute request I should’ve turned down?

Questions like these allow me to prioritize the kind of work I take on, especially regarding my overarching business goals. As I made my way down the list, it was easy to focus on one thing at a time instead of being dragged down by the thought of other things that needed to be done.

By the end of the week, I would hopefully have finished all my urgent tasks and left myself time to focus on important goals. The end of the week is also when I would force myself to be honest about the jobs I hadn’t completed: if they’re low urgency and low importance, they probably don’t need to be on my list at all.

For example, I was in the habit of replying to e-mails that didn’t need a response because I thought it was the polite thing to do. I also learned I was spending way too much time on Facebook and LinkedIn discussion groups. Even though they’re work related, I was letting them throw my true priorities off balance.

How did you feel when you adopted the new practice?

It took some getting used to, but the results have been fantastic! I’m able to be more productive without feeling guilty about pushing certain tasks aside for the day. It’s freeing to look at a task that feels urgent and remind yourself it’s not important in the long run. I was motivated to finish urgent tasks quickly since I could see that they were taking time away from more important goals.

E-mail and social media engagement were the two biggies that always fell into that tricky “urgent” category. The matrix provides a nice way to keep everything in perspective: getting my client work done and writing incredible content is more important than being constantly accessible through social media.

What was the toughest/best part of the experiment? Do you think you’ll stick with it?

One of the toughest parts was recognizing that sometimes client work isn’t urgent. It felt weird to be doing business development ahead of a billable project — even when its deadline was still several weeks away. It’s a great reminder that your business is built on more than just client work.

Another tricky issue was realizing that certain tasks consistently showed up as not urgent and not important. Stephen Covey calls these “distractions” and tells us to drop them completely. It’s hard to give yourself permission to take something off your list for good, but it’s so rewarding once it’s gone.

My favorite part of the experiment was giving myself time each week to focus on an important part of my business. Sometimes it was catching up on accounting, reading a business book I’d been meaning to get to, or working on the e-book I’ve been planning forever. Sometimes big business goals seem unattainable, but using the matrix has already brought some of mine much closer to completion.

I don’t know that I’ll continue writing out how urgent/important each task is, but the matrix itself will definitely continue to be part of my business. Now that the system is in my head, I’d like to keep using it as a way to organize my to-do list and vet new projects. Hopefully I’ll use it so much, it’ll become second nature to give important tasks the time they deserve.

Thanks for taking us through your experiment, Ashley! Now, it's your turn: Give the Time Management Matrix a go and share your results in the comments!

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Ashley Brooks is the content marketer and strategist behind Brooks Editorial and a cohost of the Chasing Creative podcast. She’s on a mission to help intentional creative entrepreneurs make their blogs work for them, starting with the Blogging for Business workbook, a DIY resource that helps busy creatives turn their blog readers into paying customers. Ashley works from home with her toddler daughter in tow, and you can always find her with an iced mocha in hand and a spare book in her purse (just in case).

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