Time Management

Sharpening the Saw - The Key to Effective Time Management

In the timeless reference book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey introduced the four quadrants of the Time Management Matrix. Through a series of questions, this matrix helps you map where you are spending most of your time. It is valuable to understand that where you spend your time and the degree that you spend in certain quadrants can have a profound effect on your daily activities. It can also reveal if you are spending enough time on self-renewal.

These four quadrants include tasks which are both (I) Urgent and Important, (II) Not Urgent but Important, (III) Urgent but Not Important, and (IV) Not Urgent and Not Important. Unfortunately, most of us spend way too much time dealing with tasks in the latter two quadrants because they are less daunting.

Let’s take a look at how this matrix can be adapted for sales­people.

Sales Quadrant I

We can’t avoid Quadrant I activity because it involves daily work activities that must be dealt with, including projects, meetings, deadlines, and crises that catch us off guard. Quadrant I activities are both urgent and important. The danger is that these can turn into a never ending circle.

When you spend so much time in Quadrant I that you get burned out, you drift into Quadrant III. The phone calls and interruptions make it difficult to stay on task. Even more distressing is that those activities you will naturally fall prey to in Quadrant III are not important but they are urgent.

Sales Quadrant III

Many people spend most of their time in Quadrants I, III, and IV. When the urgent and important Quadrant I activities end up pushing you to drift into the urgent but unimportant activities of Quadrant III, you get a false sense of accomplishment and productivity because you are filling your day with busy work. And you will definitely be tired at the end of a day. You’ll be so tired and mentally drained that it keeps you from the Quadrant I deadlines and then you drift away into Quadrant IV.

Sales Quadrant IV

Quadrant IV can best be described as those activities that allow you to escape. Quadrant IV tasks are neither urgent nor important. They consist entirely of busy work, too much TV, and those time-wasting activities that do nothing to help you revitalize yourself. Too much time in this quadrant can be very harmful. Without time for self-renewal, it can eventually lead to an unhappy state of mind, poor performance, and dreams that begin to die instead of flourish.

So how do we avoid the spiral? How do we get out of the weeds and the woods? We can sharpen the saw, of course!

Sales Quadrant II

Covey’s Quadrant II contains tasks that become habit. It is the quadrant of self-renewal. The woodsman’s tale illustrates this perfectly, in which a man is cutting down a tree. After a few hours, his saw gets dull, but he ignores advice to take a 15-minute break to sharpen it. The man claims he is too busy to stop, so it takes him another several hours to finish the job. The moral is that if he had only taken a quick break, he could’ve saved hours in the long run.

And what sharpens the saw? This consists of doing the activities that rejuvenate your body and soul: taking the time for planning and preparation, uncovering your individual mission, develop­ing your goals, and understanding what you value most.

Unfortunately the reason we spend little time here is because although Quadrant II activities are important, they are not urgent! The underlying principles of Quadrant II activities allow us to do everything just mentioned so that we can make Quadrant I decisions and perform at a high level.

We must learn to prioritize, and even say “No” sometimes. Time well spent in Quadrant II allows us to spend less time in Quadrant III, and virtually no time in Quadrant IV where we often get caught up in the “thick of thin things.” It helps us get a firm handle on the rudder and steer our ships into the wind. In Quadrant II we get to spend time with our families, we get to contribute, we get to learn, and we get to renew our spirit so that we move forward with conviction.

When we arrive back in Quadrant I afterward, we make better decisions. No one ever dies saying they wished they had spent more time at the office, however how many of us wished we had spent more special moments with our families and the people and hobbies we value most.

If you haven’t read The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, it’s still in print after 30 years since its first publication in 1989. I often refer back to it to remind myself how important the planning and preparation of Quadrant II really is.

The Time Management Matrix is fourth-generation planning. It is not simple To Do lists where your schedule manages you; it is so much more. It is a commitment to prioritizing the activities of planning, preparation, mission, and values, so that you not only perform at a higher level, but you enjoy the process.

To clearly illustrate the power of organizing and prioritizing to optimize your time and talents, watch Stephen Covey’s four-minute “Big Rocks” lesson[1] (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Stephen Covey’s “Big Rocks” presentation, available on YouTube.


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