Recently, Charles Williams, our CEO, recommended that we check out, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” by Stephen Covey. I had heard of this book, but I never got a chance to read it. After his recommendation, I figure it is time to check it out. I am about halfway through it, but I am already making changes based on its recommendations.
One thing that I struggle with is time management. It seems like I have way too many things on my plate, both at work and at home. And like most people, I have a simple but excellent To Do list application on my phone. It works fairly well, but my tasks list never seems to shrink. Some tasks stay on my list, it seems like, forever. Sometimes I think I add meaningless trivial tasks to my list, just so that I can cross them out and feel productive.
This book showed me that I am actually using a very primitive system of time — or more accurately — task management. First, we cannot really manage time. We actually manage our tasks. Second, a simple To Do list helps in reminding what needs to be done, but nothing more than that. I could use a better system and add deadlines for each task. However, those deadlines are either totally arbitrary or absolute deadlines set up by someone else, like the IRS April 15th.
According to the book, a better system would help us manage our tasks by importance, and by urgency. To start you can look at your To Do list and mark each task as either important or not important. Next, go through the list again, and mark each task as either urgent or not urgent. This will effectively categorize each task into four categories.
- Important and urgent,
- Not important and urgent,
- Important and not urgent, and
- Not important and not urgent.
Once we break down our list like this, it becomes very clear that we should tackle important and urgent tasks first. Then, perhaps not important and urgent tasks. Then, important and not urgent tasks. If we don’t tackle important and not urgent tasks in time, these tasks become important and urgent. If we have too many tasks which are both important and urgent, then we are in crisis mode.
According to the book, most people operate in crisis mode. The author recommends that we always keep tasks in Category 1 and 2 as few as possible. And always take care of Category 3 tasks before these become Category 1 and put us into crisis mode. In crisis mode, our stress level goes up. With higher stress levels, we are more likely to make mistakes.
For example, filing tax return is important. But, if we wait until April 14th to file tax returns, it becomes urgent and increases our stress level. With higher stress level, we are more likely to make filing mistakes.
Note that tasks in Category 4 might be our hobbies, vacation plans, working out, social interactions, prayers and other things that make us feel good. We can ignore these tasks for a short period of time. However, ignoring these tasks for too long can actually turn them into important or even important and urgent tasks.
For example, regular workout might not be very important right now, but if we ignore working out for too long, it may become a health crisis with obesity or other weight related health problems. Or for another example, socialization with friends and family might not seem like very important and urgent task, but if we ignore it for too long, we run the risk of feeling isolated and alone. Also, our friends and family will feel distant. So when we really need them, they may not be available for us. And we will feel urgency to restore our relationships.
With this new knowledge, I have been searching for a tool that is based on this principle of task management. I found one website: http://weekplan.net/. I have not fully tested it yet, so I cannot say how good it is. However, the simplest solution I can think of is a simple spreadsheet with four columns. First column is for the tasks that are important and urgent, second column for the tasks that are not important but urgent. Then important and not urgent tasks. The last column, of course, has tasks which are not important and not urgent. In an ideal situation, Columns 1 and 2 would always be empty.
Last point is that once a week, we should go through our tasks’ management tool and re-organize our tasks. Then plan on what tasks we will accomplish in that week. A week, according to the author, is the ideal time frame for planning.