How can leaders manage their time effectively in the 21st century

Time management to improve your leadership

In previous articles, we have discussed competencies required to excel in 21st century leadership strategies and the need to communicate more effectively while spending less time communicating. In this article, we tackle the issue of managing time effectively as a leader. Specifically, we examine how to use the Eisenhower Matrix to help you become a more efficient and effective leader.

What Is the Eisenhower Matrix?

As president during World War II, Dwight D. Eisenhower wanted a system that would help him employ his time more effectively. It also had to be simple to understand and use. Consequently, he designed what we now know as the Eisenhower Matrix – and what Stephen Covey describes as the urgent/important matrix in his books ‘First Things First and ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’.

To use the matrix, you ask two questions of every task:

  • Is this a task that needs to be done immediately, or can it be delayed (how urgent is it)?

  • What level of importance is it (to achieve your goals)?

The task is then placed in one of four quadrants in the matrix as follows:

Connecting you to how you use your time

The Eisenhower Matrix connects you to your use of time. As you learn more about this, you can plan your time more effectively as follows:

Quadrant 1: Urgent and Important

Poor time managers will spend most of their time working on tasks in this quadrant. Consequences for not completing these tasks can be extreme. Some of these tasks will be unforeseen and unavoidable. Many slip into this quadrant from other quadrants.

If you have a full quadrant 1, it is a sign that you manage your time poorly. All that should really be in this quadrant are unavoidable emergencies.

Quadrant 2: Non-Urgent and Important

This is the quadrant that contains your most important tasks – the tasks that are critical to achieving personal and professional goals. They shouldn’t be urgent because you should plan these in advance. However, poor time managers allow these tasks to slide into quadrant 1. When this happens, errors occur.

Quadrant 3: Urgent and Unimportant

These are urgent tasks, but not important. These prevent you from doing tasks in quadrant 2. Often, they have been handed to you by others. If it is possible, these tasks should be delegated to others.

Quadrant 4: Not Urgent and Not Important

These activities are time wasters. These may include things like social media, unnecessary emails, and unneeded meetings. Most of these activities can be deleted. The remainder should be delegated.

How to use the Eisenhower Matrix effectively

Employing the Eisenhower Matrix to prioritize tasks will make you a more effective time manager. These five ‘rules’ will ensure you use the power of the Eisenhower Matrix to its full effect.

Rule #1: Prioritize quadrant 2

Plan the tasks in quadrant 2 at least a week in advance. These are the activities that will accelerate you toward what Stephen Covey describes as your ‘big rocks’. 

Rule #2: Track your time

Track your time for a week to understand how much time you spend in each quadrant. The goal is to identify those activities you do which do not help you achieve your goals, and then eliminate them by either deleting or delegating.

Rule #3: Reprioritize your tasks regularly

Review your longer-term goals and your to-do lists. All the tasks that will help you achieve your goals should be in quadrant 1 or 2. Do your quadrant 1 tasks first and plan time for your quadrant 2 tasks and activities.

Rule #4: Transform quadrant 1 activities into quadrant 2 activities

If you find that your quadrant 1 is constantly full, consider ways to turn these activities into quadrant 2 activities. For example, if you attend management meetings that are convened at the last minute, discuss why this is and set up scheduled meetings that discuss issues before they become quadrant 1 tasks.

Every time a task slips into quadrant 1, reflect why and consider what you could do better next time to avoid this. Proactive time management begins with this understanding.

Rule #5: Never fill your day or week

Not every situation can be foreseen. There will always be emergencies that need to be accommodated in quadrant 1. However, by leaving space in your diary for these emergencies, they will cease to be situations that destroy your productivity. And if no emergency exists, you can work on other tasks ahead of time.

Employ the Eisenhower Matrix for greater effectiveness as a leader

Great leaders spend their time effectively. They prioritize activities and tasks in quadrant 2, and spend little time in quadrant 1. They understand which tasks are best to delegate and which activities to delete from their day.

The more time you spend in quadrant 2 of the Eisenhower Matrix, the more effective you become as a leader of a 21st century organization. To learn more about becoming a more effective leader, take this Rising to the Challenge leadership self-assessment (link needed).

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