In his great, best-selling book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective Leaders, author Stephen Covey shared a 4-section time management grid that has sections titled: 1 Important and Urgent (IU), 2 Important and Not Urgent (INU), 3 Not Important and Urgent (NIU), and 4 Not Urgent Not Important (NUNI). If you search for ‘time management grid’ on the internet, you will see it in various forms. This grid has become so common that my team members use it to take notes during our meetings. As they write down their taskings, they clarify which section of the grid the taskings should reside in which causes us to have priority discussions and allows everyone to leave the meeting with expectations clearly defined.
Section one is all about items that are urgent and important such as crises and deadline-driven projects. Section two is all about items that are important such as crisis prevention, relationship building, planning. Section three includes items that aren’t important but urgent such as interruptions, phone calls, meetings and reports. Section four includes trivia, busy work, and time wasters such as Facebook, video games, etc. In general because people are so busy with items in section one they go directly to section four when they get home in the evening. After a day of working urgent, urgent, urgent, they want to just decompress and do mindless things such as television, Facebook, video games, movies, etc.
The genius behind this grid resides in section two. If people spend their time in section two planning and improving or creating relationships, they will not have to spend so much of their time in section one managing crises. This leads us back to the question in the title, “Are you reading the signs?”
Working in Section Two
I work in an organization that has been in the news a lot recently. After the United States presidential election, articles were written and speeches were made about upcoming changes that will affect our organization. Using section two, I asked my team members to start brainstorming some ideas about this potential future change. We put together a draft plan and “placed it in the back pocket,” a term that means to file it until it is needed. Two months later on a Friday afternoon at 3:30pm, a senior leader pulled me out of a meeting showing an immediate need for this information and the fact that it was needed by 5pm. It was the first request he had for the information.
I noticed other managers scurrying around, holding quick meetings, and making frantic telephone calls. I went down to my office, made a couple of simple changes to our draft plan, printed it out and delivered it to the managers. No drama, no crisis all because my team worked out of section two prior to the crisis.
This example happened again with the recent fiscal reality caused by the congressional sequestration. Assuming this is where we would be heading by watching the news a few weeks earlier, my team and I put together a plan that we are now implementing while others are just now creating the plan. Why is this important? – because our work can continue to move forward even through crises because there will always be crises.
Would you like another example? Have you been inside a Wal-Mart lately? Have you noticed anything different? Have you noticed an expansion of basic foods such as milk, butter, eggs, etc.? After the economic decline in 2008, Wal-Mart looked around and decided that people would not be buying placemats when they needed to buy food for their families. So, they decreased the goods in other sections and increased their food sections. They saw the sign.
Are you seeing the signs? If you are seeing them, what are you doing about them? Are you so busy with urgent items in section one that you cannot work on relationship building and planning that are located in section two? If so, you will always be working on urgent crises and will never get out of section one which means you will go home each night exhausted and collapse into section four.
Despite how busy you are with crises, you must manage your time so that you can spend some time in section two regularly. The time you spend on section two will be given back to you. While others were working overtime that Friday evening, my team and I finished our meeting and went off to dinner as scheduled. It was a great feeling for all of us.