About a hundred and fifty pages into the book I found myself reading about time management, something I considered trivial, but Covey's observations changed my mind. "Time management is really a misnomer", he writes "the challenge is not to manage time, but to manage ourselves." Covey notes that we spend our time on four types of matters:
1. Urgent and important: think dealing with a crisis and rushing to meet the deadline
2. Not urgent but important: planning, developing new opportunities, working on our goals (such as exercising and taking time to cook a meal to lose weight)
3. Urgent but unimportant: answer email, attend a meeting / conference call
4. Not urgent and not important: social media, Daily Mail, online window shopping, pointless tasks
It's easy enough to see what's urgent and what's not, and it should be similarly straightforward to recognise that working on your professional or personal goals and investing in your relationship with people who matter to you are important. We would probably all agree that we should be spending most of our time on worthy, long-term matters, while being flexible enough to deal with crises as they arise and reward ourselves with occasional #foodporn on Instagram. Sadly, many of us end up putting out fires (urgent and important) day in and day out and then procrastinating until the next disaster looms large.
I'd be the first to admit that when I was working in corporate environment, my work often involved crisis management. I'd praise myself with being the "doer", the problem-solver, the deadline-driven person. I'd get a hit of dopamine from crossing a juicy item off my to-do list. Perhaps I internalised this habit at university where students behaved like Pavlov's dogs, dealing with one essay crisis, having a breather and then pounding onto the next one. Many jobs are fuelled on stress, and some professionals even take pride in thriving in the Red Bull-drenched environment. As a result, some suffer nervous breakdown, others get seriously ill from a burnout.
People who spend their time on unimportant matters tend to be unhappy. Covey writes that such people don't set long-term goals, they often feel worthless and victimised, drift from job to job and find it difficult to commit. If you see your job as doing what you are told without some bigger vision or purpose in mind, then you are bound to feel deflated. Ask any junior in an investment bank or anyone stuck in a job which doesn't address his or her values, ambitions or purpose.
What's interesting is that when Covey asked his students what's stopping them from spending most of their time on what's truly important, most said that they recognised their priorities and they were even fairly good at organising themselves, but their problem was lack of discipline. They planned their week well, then drifted. Covey says that the main problem is putting first things first - setting goals, working out what's truly important, understanding our values. I agree. Once you get your priorities straight, saying "No" to pointless meetings, coffees, engagements and work becomes easier.
How would this different take on time management work in practice? If you realise that your health is important to you, then you will find time to schedule training, rest and relaxation into your busy week. Instead of perfecting your spreadsheet of potential clients, you might actually go and speak to them. If your office culture matters to you, you will allocate time to make it better. If you value friendship, you will do something meaningful for a friend even if it involves carving out time for them during office hours. It's not so much about scheduling time to do what matters, but perhaps looking at things from a different angle. The most efficient person may suddenly appear completely ineffective. You may also realise that a morning of house chores is a worthy investment into the harmony of your home.
If you feel like sharing your thoughts, please comment below!