The Good Ol’ Summertime


August 2000

The Good Ol’ Summertime

CIDMIconNewsletter Katherine Brennan Murphy, Center Associate

Once upon a time, I was a manager at a company that decreed that summer was the perfect time to torture its employees (especially managers); all performance reviews had to be written, delivered, and argued about in the summer months. Now I’m in favor of performance reviews and, indeed, any type of proactive, objective feedback-whether formally sanctioned or given at the local coffee bar.

But when the corporation decrees that thou must write upwards of 30 performance reviews at the cusp of the fiscal year (while those pesky finance people want their reports, the dratted sales force wants those nifty new products before the books close on their commissions, and the nitpicky quality department wants all of those outstanding quality issues closed), many managers try to schedule elective surgery during the summer because, of course, vacation plans do not count.

What I’m talking about is priorities-how to handle conflicting ones-and, more important, how to know which task should take precedence over others. In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey offers a two-by-two Time Management Matrix, which I’ve adapted and included below. I’ve found this matrix very helpful in deciding where to spend my most precious, irreplaceable resource-my time and energy.

According to Covey, among others, you get the most bang for your buck on activities in the box labeled “Not Urgent, Very Important.” He suggests making appointments with yourself every week to knock off a few of these items with the same persistence and alacrity you use when accomplishing those less urgent items on your to-do list. I have, in fact, used this method to my and other people’s advantage many times, and I suggest you try it as well. I found looking at my tasks for the coming week in this way clarified my calendar and helped me know where I might need to renegotiate deadlines, delegate a task, reserve large chunks of time in my calendar, or, most daring of all, take a day off to go hiking.

Make the Time

Time is a precious, nonrenewable resource and we are already overbooked, so how do we make the time? Covey recommends that you first make the time to figure out what is important to you-those tasks for which you want to be remembered long after you’ve gone. He calls it “begin with the end in mind.” So block out a day when you can meditate on what you consider to be urgent work in the various roles you play. I suggest taking yourself away to do this meditation-use a sick day, tack an extra day onto a business trip, or extend your lunch till dinner time.

Time Management Assistant (Your List Will Vary)

Not Urgent, Very Important
  • Writing my book!
  • Thank you notes
  • Planning
  • Cultivating contacts, building relationships, helping others
  • Developing new skills, honing existing ones
  • Exercise, family/friends, watching sunsets
Very Urgent, Very Important
  • Taxes and paying bills
  • Meeting my newsletter deadlines
  • Health emergencies
  • Taking the dog out for her afternoon walk
  • Answering requests for proposals
  • Getting to the airport
Not Urgent, Not Important
  • Junk mail, phone calls, email
  • Some meetings
  • Web browsing
  • Television
  • Mystery novels
Very Urgent, Not Important
  • Junk mail, phone calls, email
  • Things I like to do but could and should delegate to others
  • Interruptions that are urgent to the caller
  • Some meetings (although being a consultant I have to go many fewer of these)

Once you have sorted all of your “to do” lists into the four boxes, try to see the underlying pattern. For example, why, when writing my book is at the top of the “Not Urgent, Very Important” list, have I made no progress? In this case, it is because I’ve been dealing with family health emergencies, which is in the “Very Urgent, Very Important” list. Sometimes we find that we have just too many top priority items, and when this happens, we gradually become less effective on all fronts.

Look at those “Very Urgent, Very Important” tasks. Can they be delegated? Can they be chunked so that one part is urgent and the other part is not? Are some of them on this list because they are fun or fulfilling but others could do them just as well?

Initially, you just need to make time to understand where all of the demands on your time and energy fit into the matrix. Then you need to start making a habit of spending some time every week on the “Not Urgent, Very Important” list. Remember to start small; give yourself permission to take the last hour at the end of every week to clear the desk and look forward to the next week. If you can’t find an hour, start with 15 minutes and try to increase the minutes every week.

Help Your Staff Make the Time

Your behavior provides the best example for your staff. If you devote time-proactively-to “Not Important, Very Urgent” tasks and you take the time to share your results, your staff will see that you value this behavior. Do you keep your one-on-one appointments with your staff? Do you include problem solving, collaborative thinking, and cross-training topics in your staff meetings? Do you take the time to brainstorm common problems?

You can also give your staff the time and opportunity to go through their task lists and categorize them into the four boxes. Provide positive feedback whenever staff members focus on the big picture along with the details. Encourage those who have tackled a “Not Important, Very Urgent” issues to report on their activities to others both inside and outside the group through articles, presentations, and conferences.

I’ve used two exercises to help staff members think in the `Not Urgent, Very Important” box. In the first one, I ask “What work issues keep you awake at night?” In other words, what issues, relationships, tasks, or frustrations refuse to be left at the office door? As we go around the room, each listing a topic, we find many surprising concerns. I compile this list, and we go through a root problem analysis to try to determine what, if any, action could be taken to move these issues back into proportion. We track the actions we take and check back to see if any progress has been made.

The other exercise also includes a staff brainstorm. This topic is “If I were CEO, the company would do….” Again the brainstorming process brings frustrations, ideas, and solutions to the surface. When you give your staff permission to creatively look at their work, their horizons open.

Remember, though, these exercises work only if you follow through, if you encourage your staff members to take action. This encouragement has to be in the form of time, resources, contacts, and schedule easements. If the staff compiles the list and nothing happens, then you have defeated the purpose.

The Myth of Multitasking

We hire people for their abilities to juggle several projects while being bright, cheerful, and professional. Are we perhaps asking too much of them and of ourselves? The suggestion that Covey makes is that we can multitask but we must do so from a clear set of values and goals-to consciously spend time on those tasks that add the most value back into our lives or the lives of those institutions and people we care about.

Concentrate on what you can accomplish alone by your words, actions, and example. If you make time for “Not Urgent, Very Important” tasks every week, then you will be able to see long-term results-perhaps initially only visible or important to you. Over time though, these results will be apparent to employees, managers, peers, or others whose opinions you value.

I’d be interested to hear, either in email or on the Listserv, what tasks you consider to be “Not Urgent, Very Important,” and how you make time in your schedules for these critical tasks.

Now go out and enjoy that sunshine! content/uploads/2015/06/CIDMIconNewsletter_sm.jpg”>CIDMIconNewsletter