A phenomenal tool to improve your productivity

Last week, I attended a 2-day intensive seminar entitled “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”. This is based on the book by the same name and which has sold over 30 million copies since it was first published a couple of decades ago and has been translated to 38 languages.

In that book, the author - Stephen Covey – summarized the findings from his extensive research into the common habits of the most successful people, spanning several centuries, including kings and leaders, executives and entrepreneurs, and others.

Before I get into what this post is all about, I will start with an admission: when I started this seminar, I was skeptical. This was not a reflection on the seminar itself, but rather because self-development and continuous progress are something I’m highly focused on; I have read dozens of books on the subject and developed my own set of tips and tricks to make me perform at my best in all aspects of my life.

Many of those were developed through trial and error, and as such I’ve had as many failures as successes. But if I were to compare myself to the person I was 5 years ago, I can say with confidence that I’m much more effective, efficient, purpose-driven, goal-oriented and structured… and ultimately happier.

In recent months, I’ve been able to glean less than 10% of useful and practical information from such books… hence my skepticism, which, as you will find out, was completely unfounded.

I’ll make a few general observations about the 7 Habits program:

  • The concepts introduced are not new or earth shattering
  • Teaching you how to implement them in the most practical and sustainable way was an eye-opener
  • While I give advice on such things all the time, I believe that many of the tools introduced will definitely help me articulate my advice in a much more constructive manner
  • Best application in my mind: managing your life in general, including balance, family, social relationships, motivation & drive, and career
  • Limitations? To be honest, not many. The only one I could really think of was its application to certain industries. Again as a matter of personal opinion, I felt that some of the concepts don’t lend themselves well for success in investment banking (for e.g.), my own career…

So, I wanted to take this opportunity to introduce one of the tools I learned and which I feel everyone should utilize as often as possible (I’m already doing that many times/day):

The 4 Quadrants of Time Management

Whatever you do during your day, it will fall within one of the four quadrants in the illustration below.

Quadrant 1 (Q1): urgent and important matters which require your full attention 

  • Q1 events are urgent AND important
  • Once a Q1 event arises, you don’t have a choice: you have to deal with it effectively and decisively
  • Q1 events tend of be draining, but also rewarding: you feel like you've achieved something
  • Examples include: emergency room doctors, firemen, client/deal emergency, etc.
  • Best practice: avoid by being proactive (Q2) and manage effectively & efficiently once the Q1 event arises

Quadrant 3 (Q3): urgent but unimportant matters

  • They are usually urgent, time-consuming, but with no real purpose or tangible result
  • Q2 events typically lead to frustration, fatigue and a sense of uselessness
  • Q2 events can be externally initiated (e.g. interruptions, reports) or self-initiated (working with no structure, plan or end-in-mind)
  • Examples include: phone interruptions, useless reports, long-winded meetings, etc.
  • Best practice: avoid completely

Quadrant 4 (Q4): not urgent or important matters

  • These are complete time-wasters
  • An hour spent in Q4 is an hour gone with nothing of value contributed to yourself or anyone else
  • Too much time spent in Q1 or Q3 will result in a natural attraction to spend time in Q4 (e.g. watching TV)
  • So if you find yourself spending too much time in Q4, chances are the problem is not in Q4 but rather Q1/3
  • Examples include: TV, gossip, social media, pointless Youtube videos
  • Best practice: include (for a “mental break”) but limit extensively

Quadrant 2 (Q2): important but not urgent matters

  • This is where you want to spend most of your time
  • It’s pro-active and value-additive to yourself and your environment (work, family, social circles)
  • The more time you spend in Q2, the less Q1 matters will arise, and the less room for Q3 and Q4
  • Q2 matters give you a sense of fulfillment, purpose and achievement
  • Q2 matters include self-development: physical & health improvement, nutrition, cognitive (mind) enhancement, development of work, social, and other skills
  • Examples include: productive work, proactivity, charity, interesting conversations, fitness, proper nutrition, relationship building, reading & education, creativity, etc.
  • Best practice: spend the vast majority of your time in Q2

Practical Thoughts

I’ll be the first to tell you: even though I’m very disciplined and structured in how my days are spent, being aware of these 4 Qs throughout the day over the past week was an eye-opener.

I genuinely thought that I had 0 “waste” time (Q4), but it turned out that I did spend quite a bit of time in Q4. And that’s the key: most of us don’t actively “think” about these things. We believe we’re operating efficiently, but until we actively think about it by using tools such as the 4 Qs, we can’t really be certain.

It took a few days for me to develop this into a habit (still a long way from perfecting it), but I now find myself consciously thinking about which Q I’m in “right now”.

Here are some practical examples of what I’ve been doing over the past week:

  • I “schedule” my Q4: the other day, I got home mentally exhausted from many Q1 matters at work. I switched on the TV but instead of just flipping through the channels mindlessly, I put a 1-hour timer on my phone: I limited my Q4 time to 1 hour. After 1 hour of watching TV (Top Gear if you need to know) I got up and grabbed a book (Keto Clarity if you need to know), and so moved into Q2. A bit later, my wife came home, so I sat down with her to discuss her day and work (Q2) and not gossip (Q4).
  • At work, I’m consciously focusing on Q2, and mainly to avoid Q1! I’m being more pro-active: anticipating and preparing.
  • When I have some free time at work, I think of someone I haven’t met in a while and grab a coffee with him/her: Q2 relationship-building rather than Q4 surfing the internet.

The result of all this is that by the time I get to bed, I truly feel like I've had a productive day. I can literally list at least 10 productive things I've accomplished.

Give it a try, and don’t give up after 2 days… build it into a habit. And take it from a skeptic: it works.