The time management matrix appears in a variety of different forms, with different words used to describe the type of activities associated with each quadrant; however, the basic concept is thought to have first originated with US President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who said, “What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.”When confronted with something that needed to be done, President Eisenhower is said to have asked himself two questions: First, is the task important? Second, is it urgent? This allowed him to get things done in the right order at the right time, and to work out which tasks could be delegated and which ones should be given his immediate attention.
Stephen Covey popularised the idea in his 1989 business classic The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, under the title “The Time Management Matrix” (page 151). Covey believed that the best thinking in the area of time management could be captured in this single phrase: “Organise and execute around priorities.”
The TM matrix is the most popular model used in time management training, which is particularly useful for leaders and managers who are in a position to delegate. Even so, the model can be applied to anyone in any position within business as well as in the personal domain, making it one of the most versatile models in the world.
The time management matrix is a way of assigning priority to tasks by sorting them into one of four categories:
- Urgent and Important (Do)
- Not Urgent and Important (Decide When)
- Urgent and Not Important (Delegate)
- Not Urgent and Not Important (Drop)
The 4 “Ds”—Do, Decide When, Delegate, Drop—did not appear in Covey’s original model. These are sometimes affixed to the model by consultants to help people more easily distinguish between the quadrants by pulling into focus the basic action step that is being recommended.
The TM matrix reminds people that there is often an over-focus on the Urgent and Not Important quadrant (Q3, Delegate), which includes tasks such as incoming emails and phone calls, while neglecting the most vital quadrant for long-term success: Important and Not Urgent (Decide When).
The Not Urgent and Important quadrant (Q2, Decide When) is the place for working on things like personal growth, developing a skill set, planning out a diet, going to the gym, and spending quality time with the family. These are activities that people may not have a great sense of urgency in dealing with in the immediate present and might therefore find themselves in a position where they keep putting them off. While this may not be seen as a problem in the short term, the negative effects that flow from cumulative build-up can be difficult to undo at the time when the issue is finally addressed, by which point dealing with the fallout may become very difficult or even overwhelming. For tasks that fall into this category, the common wisdom is to schedule specific dates and times when these things must be done and then pledge commitment to follow through.
The other main point usually highlighted about the TM matrix is that people will tend to spend too much time on trivia (Drop) and interruptions (Delegate), which should be minimised as much as possible. Ultimately, the TM matrix helps remind people of the question: Is this task really important or should I be working on something else with a better long-term return on investment?
This article offers an expanded description of the summary listed in our post 40 Must-Know HR, OD, L&D Models.