Updated: Mar 24, 2022
In his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey talks about the four generations of time management, and how to use the best one: the fourth generation.
Basically, the first generation was the checklist. It listed to-dos with no sense of priority or timing. The second generation was calendars; it attempted to plan events ahead of time. The third generation added the idea of prioritization, goal setting, and daily planning.
The third generation sounds great, and it’s what most people use nowadays. But the problem people encounter is that “efficient scheduling” often goes against our control over time. People get so caught up over productivity that they don’t enjoy life.
The fourth generation doesn’t focus on things and time. Instead, it focuses on values. Values are important areas of our lives, such as relationships and health. By being focused on values, we get the right things done first rather than just getting things done as efficiently as possible.
Let’s look at a core tool in fourth-generation time-management: The Importance-Urgency Quadrant.
Some people spend 90% of their time dealing with emergencies in Quadrant 1; their only relief is escaping into Quadrant 4. Some other people spend most of their time in Quadrant 3, reacting to interruptions and distractions, thinking that those activities are important. But the reality is, most of those activities are just responding to others’ demands.
Effective people prioritize activities in Quadrant 2, which prevents Quadrant 1 emergencies from arising. For example, they take care of their health to prevent illness, and they nurture their relationships to prevent distancing.
Covey says we should avoid anything that’s not important, that is Quadrant 3 and Quadrant 4 activities. I want to clarify that some people may use games and TV shows to relax or as family time, in which case you can actually view it as Quadrant 2. But if those activities are used as an escape from responsibility or priorities, then they should be postponed until after your priorities are addressed.
I also think we should have protocols in place for interruptions and distractions so that they don’t hinder us. For example, my protocol for avoiding interruptions when doing focused work is to turn my phone on silent and faced down (or airplane mode faced up). I also don’t send work emails after work hours; instead, I schedule the reply for the next morning using an email tool called boomerang.
If you want additional guidance to figuring out your Quadrant 2 priorities, ask yourself these two questions:
What one thing could you do in your personal life that, if you did on a regular basis, would make a tremendous positive difference in your life?
Repeat question 1 for your professional life.
Adding Quadrant 2 to a weekly calendar creates a result that looks like this:
Notice on the left side that there’s categories for each Quadrant 2 area, and each of those areas have two to three tasks. Then notice how those tasks have been scheduled into the week’s calendar first before anything from other quadrants. I also color-coded the different priorities so that I can see at a glance if I indeed met all my priorities in that week. Finally, notice how much space is left. Scheduling your Quadrant 2 activities first gives you freedom and flexibility to handle unanticipated events, to shift appointments if needed, and to enjoy spontaneous experiences.
Before using this tool, I always felt so busy and but also like I should be doing more. After using this tool, I became disciplined to really figure out the important priorities in my life, then to actually put them on the calendar. That way, at the end of each day and week, I can simply look at my calendar and ask myself, "Did I do those things?" If yes, then I had a productive day. If no, then I reschedule what I didn't do. It's helped me feel a lot more focused, productive, and peaceful.
I made a template using both Excel and Word for the calendar picture above. If you want to try it out, you can download the templates here.