The Time Quadrants

If you haven’t already noticed, we live in a society that is addicted to urgency. It’s the NOW generation. That’s why we have instant pudding, Minute rice, crash diets, fast food, buns of steel in seven days, pay-per-view, pagers, cell phones, and so on. It reminds me of the spoiled rich girl in Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory , who keeps saying, “Now, Daddy! Now! I want an Umpalumpa now!”

Urgent things aren’t bad, necessarily. The problem comes when we become so focused on urgent things that we put off important things that aren’t urgent, like working on that report in advance, going for a walk in the mountains, or writing an important letter to a friend. All these important things get pushed aside by urgent things, like phone calls, interruptions, drop-ins, deadlines, other people’s problems, and other “in-your-face-do-it-now” things.

As we dig a little deeper into each quadrant, ask yourself, “What quadrant am I spending most of my time in?”

QUADRANT 1: The Procrastinator

the-procrastinatorLet’s start with Q1, things that are both urgent and important. There will always be Q1 things that we can’t control and that must get done, like helping a sick child or meeting an important deadline. But we also cause many Q1 headaches because we procrastinate, like when we put off doing our homework and then have to cram all night for a test or when we neglect our car for too long and then have to take it in to get repaired. Q1 is part of life, but if you’re spending too much time in Q1, believe me, you’ll be a “stress case” and you’ll seldom be performing to your potential.

Meet the Procrastinator, who hangs out in Q1. Perhaps you know her. Her motto is, “I’m going to stop procrastinating—sometime soon.” Don’t expect her to work on a paper or study for a test until the night before. And don’t expect her to take time to get gas; she’s usually too busy driving.

The Procrastinator is addicted to urgency. She likes to put things off and put things off and put things off … until it becomes a crisis. But she likes it that way because, you see, doing everything at the last minute gives her a rush. In fact, her mind won’t kick into gear until there’s an emergency. She thrives under pressure.

Planning ahead is simply out of the question for the Procrastinator because it would ruin the excitement of doing everything at the last possible moment.

The Procrastinator reminds me of the comedian who said:

“My mom always told me that I would be a procrastinator.”

I replied, “Just you wait.”

I can relate to the Procrastinator because I was a cram artist in high school. I used to think I was pretty cool not studying all semester and then cramming the night before and pulling out a good grade. How stupid! Sure I got the grade, but I didn’t learn a thing and I paid for it in college, and in many ways I’m still paying for it.

One procrastinating teen said it this way:

“What I do is I slack off until the end of the term and kill myself for the last two weeks. When grades come out I get around a 3.7 to 3.8, but I don’t feel I have earned it because everyone else turned stuff in on time and does what they’re supposed to. They’re not stressed. That’s how I want to be.”

The results of too much time in Q1 are:

  • Stress and anxiety
  • Burnout
  • Mediocre performance

QUADRANT 2: The Prioritizer

checklistNow back to Q2. Q2 is made of things that are important but not urgent, like relaxation, building friendships, exercising, planning ahead, and doing homework … on time! It’s the quadrant of excellence—the place we want to be. Q2 activities are important. But are Q2 activities urgent? No! And that’s why we have trouble doing them. For example, getting a good summer job may be very important to you. But since it’s weeks away and not urgent, you may put off looking for that job until it’s too late and suddenly all the good jobs are filled. Had you been in Q2, you would have planned ahead and found a better job. It wouldn’t take more time, just a little more planning.

the-prioritizerMeet the Prioritizer. Although she’s by no means perfect, she’s basically got it together. She takes a look at everything she has to do and then prioritizes, making sure her first things get done first and her last things last. Because she has the simple but powerful habit of planning ahead, she’s usually on top of things. By doing her homework on time and writing her papers in advance, she does her best work and avoids the stress and burnout that come from cramming. She makes time to exercise and renew herself, even if it means pushing aside other things. The people who matter most in her life, like her friends and her family, come first. Although it’s a struggle, staying balanced is important to her.

She changes the oil in her car regularly. And she doesn’t wait until she’s running on fumes to fill up with gas. She loves going to movies, surfing the Net, and reading suspense novels but never lets those activities go too far.

She’s learned how to say no with a smile. When her friends dropped by unexpectedly one evening to go to a party, she said, “No thanks. I have a huge test tomorrow. But how about Friday night? Let’s get together then.” Her friends were okay with that and secretly wished they had had the courage to say no as well. She’s learned that resisting peer pressure appears unpopular at first, but that people come to respect her for it.

The results of living in Q2 are:

  • Control of your life
  • Balance
  • High performance

QUADRANT 3: The Yes-man

the-yes-manQ3 represents things that are urgent but not important. It is characterized by trying to please other people and responding to their every desire. This quadrant is deceptive because urgent things have the appearance of being important. In truth, they’re often not. For example, a ringing phone is urgent, but often the conversation is so unimportant, or worse, it’s a telemarketer! Q3 is loaded with activities that are important to other people but not important to you—things that you would like to say no to but can’t because you’re afraid you might offend someone.

Meet the Yes-man of Q3, who has a real hard time saying no to anything or anyone. He tries so hard to please everyone that he usually ends up pleasing no one, including himself. He often caves in to peer pressure because he likes to be popular and he wouldn’t want to stand out. His motto is, “Tomorrow, I’m going to be more assertive—if that’s okay with you.”

When his friends dropped by unexpectedly one evening and wanted him to go cruising till dawn, he just couldn’t muster up enough courage to turn them down. He didn’t want to disappoint his buddies. It didn’t matter that he was taking some gargantuan test the next morning and needed to study and get some sleep.

Although he told his sister that he’d help her with math, he couldn’t resist taking that urgent phone call that took most of the night but wasn’t really that important.

He didn’t really want to join the swimming team. He preferred art. But his dad was a swimmer and, of course, he didn’t want to let him down.

I think all of us, myself included, have a little Q3 inside of us. But we won’t accomplish much if we say yes to everything and never learn to focus on what’s important. Comedian Bill Cosby has said it well: “I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is to try to please everyone.” Q3 is one of the worst quadrants to be in because it has no backbone. It’s fickle and will blow whichever way the wind is blowing.

The results of spending too much time in Q3 are:

  • Reputation for being a “pleaser”
  • Lack of discipline
  • Feeling like a doormat for others to wipe their feet on

QUADRANT 4: The Slacker

Q4 is the category of waste and excess. These activies are neither urgent nor important.

the-slackerMeet the Slacker who loafs about in Q4. He loves anything in excess, like too much TV, too much sleep, too many video games, or too much time on the Web. Two of his favorite pastimes include regular three-hour phone calls and mall marathons each weekend.

He is a professional loafer. Sleeping in until noon takes real skill, after all. He absolutely loves comic books. In fact, he reads several dozen a week. He’s never had a job. But he’s young and has his health, so why would he want to work? School, of course, is the last thing on his mind. He’d rather, you know, just hang out.

Going to movies, chatting on the Web, or just hanging out are part of a healthy lifestyle. It’s only when they’re done in excess that they become a waste of time. You’ll know when you cross that line. Watching that first TV show might be just what you need to relax, and that’s okay. But then watching the second, third, or even fourth show (a rerun that you’ve seen six times) until 2 A.M. turns a relaxing evening into a wasted one.

The results of living in Q4 are:

  • Lack of responsibility
  • Guilt
  • Flakiness

So in which quadrant are you spending the majority of your time? 1, 2, 3, or 4? Since, in reality, we all spend some time in each quadrant, the key is to shift as much time as possible into Q2. And the only way you’ll find more time for Q2 is to reduce the amount of time you spend in the other quadrants.

Here is how to do that:

Shrink Q1 by procrastinating less. You’re always going to have lots to do in Q1. That’s guaranteed. But if you can cut your procrastination in half by doing important things early, you’ll be in Q1 far less often. And less Q1 time means less stress!

Say no to Q3 activities. Learn to say no to unimportant things that pull you away from more important ones. Don’t be so interruptible. Trying to please everyone is like a dog trying to catch its tail. Remember, when you’re saying no you’re really saying yes to more important things.

Cut down on Q4, slacker activities. Don’t stop doing these things, just do them less often. You don’t have time to waste. Shift this time to Q2. You need to relax and kick back, but remember relaxation is Q2. Excessive relaxation is Q4.

In addition to spending more time in Q2, consider two other suggestions to help you better manage your time and put first things first: Pick up a planner and plan weekly.

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