Getting Things Done: Four Quadrants and Setting Priorities

First Things First

The process of gaining or regaining a greater sense of confidence and control over your life can seem overwhelming to almost anyone. That is part of the reason why having someone who can be a guide or facilitator (a therapist or coach) can be so helpful. Having someone who can look at your situation with a greater sense of detachment can allow you to reconsider your priorities.

Over the years we have found that the writings of Stephen Covey often seem to come to mind when we are working with someone about setting priorities.

In particular, we greatly appreciate what he has to say about how we all too often find ourselves spending time.  The Four Quadrant chart illustrates one of his key concepts.

Four Quadrants LIfe Planning

Important or Not Important

This chart shows a simple way of categorizing the things that we do in our lives.

The chart divides activities into “important” and “not important.” (Sometimes we choose instead to think of them as “more important” and “less important” – it can be hard to assign the category “not important” to a task, so “less important” may make the process easier.) Importance refers to the personal importance of a task. If you never were able to complete a task, how much would that matter in the long term in your life? How does the task align with your personal values and priorities?

Urgent or Not Urgent

Then we look at how urgent the task is. What is the deadline for completing the task? Do we have plenty of time to do it or will we have to get started quickly if we are going to finish it on time?

You may notice that your list has many more “urgent’ than “not urgent” items in it. Americans tend to focus on urgency, often to the exclusion of importance. It may take an effort to think of things that are “important” but “not urgent.”

Urgency Driven Living

Far too many of us live lives that are dominated by a sense of urgency. The only things that get done are the urgent tasks. In fact, we may have to “fool ourselves” into believing that an important, but not urgent, task has a deadline in order to pay any attention to relationships, spiritual values, or issues of work-life balance.

In compensation for a life with too much urgency, we may tend to focus our “free time” on things that are really time wasters (at best) or (at worst) things that actually tend to make us more unhappy (alcohol, junk tv, etcetera). This picture captures what this kind of life looks like. Notice that the second quadrant practically disappears…

Stephen Covey’s Ideas

There are two books that contain the core insights and ideas that he has since elaborated in a number of ways. The first one is called, appropriately enough, First Things First. The second one is The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. These books are available everywhere books are sold and are fairly easy reads. They also have excellent audiobook versions.

Stephen Covey Inspired Organizers

The wisdom of Covey’s approach is embodied in the paper organizer products that you can find at the Franklin Covey website and at their stores. Although you can certainly make the same kind of changes without buying the organizer products, we do find that using them makes it a bit easier to move ahead without getting bogged down or overwhelmed.