Managing Our Greatest Asset: Time

Many people would assume that money is the most valuable possession a person can have. Folks bust their backsides trying to reach that highly venerated million dollar plateau, while never realizing that there is another even more valuable resource abundantly at their disposal. In fact, we may actually be wasting some of that greater possession in the vain pursuit of other, less worthwhile things. I’m speaking of course about our most precious resource of all–time.

As an old song from Rent points out, there are only 525,600 minutes in a year, and we only get to live for so many years. In other words, the time we have on this earth is as scarce and finite as a resource can be.

Naturally, then, there is an obvious question we should all be asking ourselves at this point: what do we do with the limited amount of time we have? How can I manage and economize the resource to ensure it’s budgeted to have the greatest possible impact? So many people wonder about this and few even begin to know where to start.

We’d like to suggest that the key to effective time management is actually quite simple. The answer isn’t in any calendar system, app, or tool, but rather in the principles that go into effective and mindful scheduling.

Time is a finite resource. Different uses of time are of different values, and the degree to which you allocate time to items of different values determines the level of output your use of that time produces. So simple, right?

One of the most popular and historically effective schedule planning tools incorporates these principles to a tee. It’s known as the “Eisenhower Matrix”. The tool is named after Dwight Eisenhower, a man who served as the General of the U.S. army presiding over World War II’s D-Day and then built the entire Interstate Highway System as President of the United States. In other words, a guy who was seriously good at getting stuff done. This same tool was adapted in Stephen Covey’s book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, one of the best-selling self-help books of all time, due to its sophisticated yet easy to follow method.

The key to using this tool is to divide all of your tasks up into four quadrants, by classifying their inherent value. In this tool, tasks are ranked according to two classifications: “urgency” and “importance”. “Urgency” refers to how immediately pressing a task is. Deadlines, meetings, and medical emergencies are urgent–they need immediate attention. For urgent tasks, it’s now or never. “Importance”, on the other hand, focuses on how much completing the task truly matters. It has to do with the bigger picture of life.

With the understanding of what those two classifications are and how to determine what falls under which label, the scheduling process begins.

One draws a table with four boxes, and each box has both a classification and an action associated with it. The first box (aka Quadrant 1) is the stuff that is both urgent and has an important or meaningful impact. These tasks are clearly prioritized as ones to be acted on first.

Quadrant 2 is filled with tasks classified as important but less urgent. These things are must do’s for your overall well-being and life goals, but do not necessarily require immediate attention or action. This can include things like going on a diet, exercising, or working on relationships with your loved ones. The action assigned to this box is “Schedule”. Rather than doing them right away, or worrying about not being able to do them because of more pressing tasks, you actively distribute time to the meaningful activity without hindering progress on more urgent matters. Actively scheduling things allows you to avoid the trap of putting them off indefinitely only to never get them done, and have to live with the painful consequences.

Following that, Quadrant 3 brings us items that are urgent, but less important. These are things that require immediate attention for some reason or another, but are not actually that important in the bigger picture. Perhaps this includes something like filling out legal paperwork before a deadline, responding to emails, or renewing your passport before an upcoming trip. The action assigned to this group of items is “Delegate”. This means that rather than spending valuable time on things that aren’t all that important, you delegate as many of these tasks as possible to other people. Maybe this means getting an accountant or business manager to handle your finances, or getting a secretary to send those email replies on your behalf. We all have relationships with other people and realizing the interconnectedness of how we can all help one another can open up far more possibilities than many of us realize.

Finally, we come to Quadrant 4 – the box that no task wants to fall into. This is where non-urgent and unimportant tasks end up, and sadly, the action that they are destined to face is “Eliminate”. Maybe this is the six hours a day you spend playing video games in your pajamas, or maybe it’s the 45 minutes out of every hour at the office that you spend scrolling through social media. This is the stuff that eats away at the time you have and precludes you from using it to its maximally effective potential. Having a list of such things organized on paper, and actively working to eliminate them from your routine can be an incredibly positive habit-building process, even impacting other quadrants as well.

And that’s all there is to it. The system’s beauty is in its simplicity, and in the flawless and uncomplicated way that it does exactly what an effective schedule is meant to do: creating a straightforward action plan to maximize your use of limited time. Whether you choose to use this particular formula or some other scheduling model, as long as it puts the emphasis on maximizing your time for that which brings you the best overall output, you will be in good shape. And as a surprise bonus, you just might end up with some extra time on your hands!

Words by Mickey Hodges 

Illustration by Paohan Chen