Don’t Manage Your Time, Manage Your Tasks
By The Army Leader
In my early career I was often told I would need improve my time management. “Getting everything done is about managing your time better” was a common response when I asked how others got all their jobs done. I was recently told the same thing on a course. “This course isn’t difficult if you manage your time correctly”. The reality is slightly different. In order to be effective, I’ve learnt, you need to understand the difference between time management and task management.
Today the average leader has so many things to do and so many pulls on their time. Achieving success is as much, if not more, about doing the right things as it is about managing your time in the right way. Goethe, the German writer and statesman, nailed it when he said
Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least
If you want to be successful you have to order your tasks according to the task’s priority and deadline. If you choose only one factor or the other, you will fail. Time management is a misnomer. You need to practise task management.
Urgency vs Importance
In busy jobs we are often seduced by the tasks that grab our attention. Phones ring. WhatsApp dings. A new email leaps up in the corner of our screen. There are constant calls for our attention, each one screaming ‘I’m important, deal with me now’. These are urgent tasks, tasks that call on us for immediate action. They are visible and noisy.
On the other hand, important tasks are those that create results. They contribute to your mission, they build you team or help you look after your people. Often, they don’t scream at you until you’ve almost run out of time.
When you’ve run out of time they scream for attention – they’ve become urgent and important.
The Four Quadrants of Task Management
This is best shown in the for quadrants below:
Box 1 is urgent and important. These are crises. They consume you and knock everything aside because they deserve, in fact they require, you and your team’s full attention. But you can’t live in constant crisis. It isn’t healthy and it tends to make you escape to Box 4, where the fun is.
Box 3 is urgent but unimportant. These are distractions. On a simple level they are your phone calls and emails that pull you away from other work. But they are also those tasks that provide you minimal advantage. Think that a task is too much effort for the return (‘the juice isn’t worth the squeeze’) but you are still doing it because it grabbed your attention or the deadline is close? That’s an urgent-unimportant task. Seductive, but not important.
Box 4 is unimportant and non-urgent. These are time-wasters. Why would anyone do anything in this box? It’s because often what is in Box 4 is enjoyable. All those procrastination tasks fit in here. Meetings that you should not be at fit in here. Some of your email fits in here as well.
Box 2 is the place you want to be spending your time: non-urgent but important tasks such as planning, projects and development. These tasks deliver your outputs, build your team and look after your people so that you do not have to live in Box 1 all the time.
Changing the Quadrants.
What you want to do is live as much of your life (both personal and professional) in Box 2. That is a simple thing to say but a difficult one to enact. To do it you need to think in three stages.
Stage One – ignore the seduction of urgency. Fundamentally, there is little difference between those urgent and non-urgent unimportant tasks. They are either distractions or time-wasters and you need to get rid of them both.
So, stage one is about destroying the distinction. Realise that Boxes 3 and 4 are the same and treat them equally, like this:
Stage Two – now close down Boxes 3 and 4. Give more time to Box 2.
There are some tasks that you’ll need to do even if they don’t add much value. Delegate them if you can. Alternatively, timetable a slot during the week to deal with them. Forecasting a couple of hours each week or couple of days will allow you to focus on them and ruthlessly cull them.
There are other tasks that distract you from important tasks. These are the noisy attention grabbers like phone calls and instant messages. Reduce their ability to grab you by turning them off. Mute instant messenger, unplug the phone, remove the email pop-up.
The final method for removing unimportant tasks is difficult but highly effective: learn how to say no. This means saying no to yourself – delete the task and accept that it didn’t need knowing – and saying no to others. The second is more difficult but is critical to opening up space for Box 2.
So, Stage Two is about task management and triage.
Stage Three is deliberately filling up the space you’ve opened with more Box 2 activities – and then deliberately schedule them into your diary at least a week in advance.
There is an art to Stage Three. If you allow it, the Box 1 crises will expand to fill the space, so be proactive. Every Box 2 important task needs to be scheduled in advance. Look forward at least a week and start filling your diary up with blocks of time for each important non-urgent task. Get ahead of the bow-wave.
All of this isn’t easy. Box 3 and 4 are full of enjoyable procrastination and fun. But, as EM Gray said in 1940:
“The common denominator of success – the secret of success of every man who has ever been successful – lies in the fact that he formed the habit of doing things that failures don’t like to do.”
That is to say, successfully controlling your tasks is not easy or enjoyable. Even those who do it effectively don’t enjoy it; they do it because getting into a habit of controlling your tasks is essential.
What’s this got to do with leadership?
There are two lesson to take for a leader.
One of those is about managing yourself. It’s about making the most of your time as a leader. Box 2 is about doing MS effectively, planning your mission and vision (even if you don’t publish them), and thinking about the direction you want to take your team. Box 2 is about giving direction to your team effectively. One of the common reasons leaders create crises is that they didn’t spend enough time giving effective direction. As a result, their subordinate or team fails to deliver – forcing a crisis recovery.
Finally, Box 2 is also about leading-by-walking-around. Make sure you put time in the diary for this critical Box 2 task that is hard to justify during a crisis but delivers situational awareness and communication.
Let Others Control Their Quadrants
I often tell leaders to reverse complaints about their seniors onto themselves. This is another occasion.
Think it’s impossible to close down Boxes 3 and 4 because you’ve been given ‘important’ or ‘urgent’ tasks by your boss? Ask whether you are doing the same to your team.
Do you expect them to treat every task like it is urgent, even if it is unimportant? Do you differentiate between urgency and importance when you task them?
Do you give them the opportunity to tell you if they think the task is less important than you think?
Or are you too intimidating for them to even suggest it? Do they fear for the career implications if they disagree?
Controlling Your Tasks and Your Life
Having control of our lives is important to us. Autonomy – the ability to make our own decisions – is one of the three key components of human motivation.
One of the best ways to gain that autonomy is to task-manage rather than time-manage. It will motivate you, help you (and your team) achieve more and ultimately make you happier and more driven.
Equally, as a leader you need to give your subordinates the ability to control their lives to some extent. If they don’t get to make decisions about what is important and what is not, they will be demotivated and leave. In some ways, the lesson of the four quadrants is about empowerment – your empowerment to achieve more, and how to allow your followers to exercise their own empowerment.
Resources: You can find out more about the four quadrants in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey, which is also available as an Audible free trial.
If you found this article useful then visit The Army Leader Store where you can buy a ‘Manage your Tasks’ mouse mat which explains each step of the process of effectively managing your tasks. You might also like JP Morgan’s Guaranteed Formula For Success, with explains how the Pareto Principle means you need to ruthlessly work out which 20% of your tasks are the most important.