How to become really effective – manage the important tasks!

Important note

Important note

Effective leaders must be able to manage their tasks and time efficiently.  Not only should they plan their tasks well ahead of time, they should also be able to select the right tasks and prioritize them effectively.  More importantly, they should be able to decide which tasks are to be avoided.

Consider the story of my friend (let’s call him Das) who was to make an overseas trip to visit his parents.  Das was visiting his parents after a long gap and was eagerly looking forward to the trip.  We both lived in Philadelphia at the time.  The flight was to depart from Newark, New Jersey at 9 pm the next day.  Das was planning the logistics with me and mentioned that he may come into work the next day, spend a half-day at work and then drive over to Newark around noon time.  I suggested that he may be better off working from home.  Das then agreed and mentioned that he may use the morning to either work from home, or do some last minute gift shopping.

Around 10.30 pm that night I got a frantic call from Das asking if I knew the procedure to get an emergency passport.  Turns out, he discovered that his passport had expired!

Das had a very early start the next day.  At the crack of dawn, he drove to the Indian Consulate in New York with his entire luggage, applied for an emergency passport, waited all of 5-6 hours in the Consulate, got the passport issued. He made it to the plane on time, but he could neither do any work nor any gift-shopping. 

Let us look at this example from the important/urgent matrix shown alongside:

Important vs Urgent matrix

Important vs Urgent matrix

Ensuring that your identity and travel documentation is accurate, current and valid is an “important” activity.  Das clearly had ignored this important activity, when it was “not urgent”.  In other words, the task was in square # 4 in the above image.Highly effective leaders spend their time attending to tasks that are in square # 4.  These are the “important but not urgent” tasks. 

This concept is detailed in the book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey.  This bestseller is a great leadership book and I highly recommend reading it.

Each one of us is given 24 hours in a day and how we choose to spend that time is up to us.  We can spend our time doing tasks in one or more of the four boxes shown above.  Let us look at the tasks that could belong to each of the four boxes and how to tackle them:

Square # 1 – Crisis

Consists mainly of firefighting tasks, such as the passport renewal in Das’s case.  Any important task that has a deadline associated with it has the potential to move from Square #4 to Square # 1.  Filing your taxes, critical home repairs, car maintenance, are some examples of important tasks that have an associated deadline.

Needless to say, when these tasks become due, such as a leaking roof or a car breakdown, you are forced to drop everything else and put out this crisis.

Such crises are best avoided by planning and focusing your time and efforts on square # 4.

Square # 2 – Urgent, but not important

The imperative term in this square is “not important”.  Any task that is not important should be viewed suspiciously, properly scrutinized and then relegated to the bottom of the priority list.  When it becomes urgent, you must find out where the urgency is coming from.  Usually it is someone else’s “important” task that becomes your “urgent” task.  It is perfectly fine if you are spending time and effort in helping a friend, but if such tasks become commonplace, then you should be conscious of the drain on your time.  You cannot expect all your friends and colleagues to be conscious of your time.  You are responsible for managing your own time.  At work, be aware of the person who sets up meeting after meeting to collectively discuss and review things that should be done individually.  In his book, Stephen Covey advocates practicing the art of saying “no” very politely and distinctly separating the task from the person.

Such tasks should be delegated whenever possible, or prioritized very low on your task list.

Square # 3 – Neither important nor urgent

These tasks are best avoided.  They provide temporary respite or stress-relief, but spending large amounts of time renders you unproductive.  I have noticed that for me surfing the internet is a very dangerous pastime.  As I browse the internet looking for information or checking out “how to” videos, I find relevant sites and the information I need.  But then after accomplishing what I wanted to, I realize very late that I have clicked a few links too many and an hour has gone by.

Checking out the video or performing the search was an important activity.  But the time spent after that could have well been avoided.  Could I have stumbled on some really valuable information?  Absolutely.  But that was not by design and was not planned for.  Therefore the time spent was wasted.

Clearly allocate a specific slot of time for a specific activity.  When done, just move on to the next task. 

Non-urgent and non-important tasks are best avoided.

Square # 4 – Important, but not urgent

Includes tasks that help improve your capability  such as learning new skills or language, getting an advanced degree, exercising, maintain your health and fitness, setting up a will, building relationships, setting a goal and planning on its execution, etc.  Don’t forget passport renewals!

 Try to spend as much time as possible on such tasks.

The more time you spend on tasks in square # 4, the fewer tasks will creep into square #1.

I’d like to hear your thoughts on this matrix and what dimensions other than importance and urgency are relevant for you.

Image: © Photoslash | Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images

Matrix: © Kay Leadership Academy (adapted from Stephen Covey’s “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”