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Covey’s Time Management Quadrants

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Time Wall

Being able to prioritize is an essential skill and in order to be productive, you have to invest your time wisely. A great way to prioritize is by using the Covey Quadrant that was popularized by Stephen Covey. While the book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People explains in-depth how the quadrant works, this article will show you how to use it for prioritizing your tasks.

This is what the quadrant looks like.

Covey's Quadrant

The 2×2 time management matrix popularized by Stephen Covey.

Every activity can be put in one of the four quadrants and this can be used for prioritizing tasks. You can see tasks that can be labeled as “important” or “not important” in combination with “urgent” or “not urgent”. If you are having a hard time prioritizing, this 2-by-2 matrix can be really useful. Especially when you plan for a productive day, you have to be able to identify which tasks you want to do based on priority. Let’s see what each quadrant means.

Quadrant 1 – Important and Urgent

The first quadrant, oftentimes referred to as the quadrant of necessity, contains the tasks that are urgent and important. These are the tasks you have to do or else you will face negative consequences. Usually these are deadline driven and/or time sensitive. On a daily basis, it is inevitable that you will do tasks that fall in quadrant one. The key is to being able to manage these.

Examples of tasks in quadrant one include:

  • Medical emergencies
  • Filing your taxes
  • Last minute changes

If you feel like you are firefighting most of your days, that is a sign that you are spending too much time in this quadrant. You are just doing the things that bring you the short-term benefits whereas you want to shift investing more time in long-term solutions (see quadrant two).

Quadrant 2 – Important and Not Urgent

This is THE quadrant where you want to invest most of your time. Tasks in quadrant two are in direct alignment of your goals and things you want to achieve in the long-run. Here are a couple examples of quadrant two tasks:

  • Exercising
  • Taking classes outside your job to advance your career
  • Working on your business while you are holding up your current job
  • Spending time with your friends and family
  • Designing and implementing systems.

Everyone’s goals and dreams are different. What might be a quadrant two task for me, might not be for you. Also, do you see that the tasks are non-urgent? This might seem counterintuitive at first. A lot of times we associate things that have a sense of urgency as important, but that is not the case. Your goals and dreams are not running away; they will be right where they are now and there is no urgency to achieving them within a specified timeline. Anything that benefits you in the long run could be considered in quadrant two.

Quadrant 3 – Not important and Urgent

Also called the quadrant of deception, people often confuse important tasks while in fact they are not important. Or people think the task is urgent but it really is not (and thus should belong in quadrant four).

A common occurrence of mistaking something as important is when someone is asking you to do something but that does not directly help you achieve your goals. The key here is prevention by being able to say “no” to these people.

An example of mistaking something as urgent, while it is not, are often sources of distraction. You would think they are urgent so you shift focus, but in reality they are not. For example, constantly checking your email inbox or responding right away to people on instant messenger.

Other common examples of quadrant three tasks include:

  • Picking up the phone while you are working
  • Checking Facebook updates
  • Checking your phone for text messages

Quadrant 4 – Not important and Not Urgent

Quadrant 4 contains the tasks you want to avoid as much as possible. These are your time wasters that you want to eliminate. If you could identify all your Q4 tasks and eliminate most of them, you would free up a lot of time you could otherwise invest in quadrant two tasks.

Some examples include:

  • Playing video games
  • Watching reruns of your favorite TV shows
  • Following the news
  • Checking your RSS feeds
  • Spending time on Reddit

The caveat is that this quadrant can be mistaken as something that shouldn’t be part of life, but that is not true. It is really important to have a balanced life between work and your personal life. You need downtime to not get burnt out and that is where quadrant four comes into the picture. The challenge is you allocate most of your time to quadrant two, with just enough of time spent in quadrant four to get by.

How to apply

Most people spend their time in quadrants one and three, but very little on quadrant two. If you want to look “busy”, quadrant three is your best friend. But if you want to be effective and productive, quadrant two should be your best friend.

Another way of looking at this matrix is that you only want to live your life in the upper part of the quadrant as much as possible. So you work on the things in quadrant one to get by, while you use the remaining time in quadrant two. In reality, you also need a little bit of quadrant four as part of your downtime.

In a perfect world all you would do is live in Q2, but the reality is not like that. Most people apply this quadrant by doing the Q1 tasks first (remember, they are a necessity) and then when these are all done, they spend time on Q2 tasks. That is one way of using this quadrant. Another way would be the frog eating method. This is where you start your day with a Q2 task, and once that is finished you do all your Q1 tasks. One approach is not necessarily better than the other. Do whatever works for you.

Real life example

Let me paint a mental picture for you to show you an example of how you can apply this quadrant for planning your day. Imagine for a moment that you are an online entrepreneur (perhaps you even are) and you have one very successful website. This website is your primary source of income and your goal is to make it even more successful where it is making ten times the income you are getting now.

So let’s say your to-do list looks like this (in random order):

  • Write sales copy for new product
  • Instruct virtual assistant to do research on competition
  • Respond to Jennifer’s FB wall post on possible date this weekend
  • Clean my apartment
  • Watch this comedy skit on Youtube that John recommended
  • Re-organize my desktop icons
  • Buy shampoo and toothpaste (ran out)
  • Cancel dentist appointment
  • Download the new album by Kanye West
  • Drive by the grocery store for donuts

Based on your new knowledge of the Covey quadrant, in which quadrant does each task belong to? Here is how I would do it.

Quadrant 1

  • Respond to Jennifer’s FB wall post on possible date this weekend – it is time sensitive.
  • Buy shampoo and toothpaste (ran out) – for some people this could be considered a crisis or emergency.
  • Cancel dentist appointment – this is time sensitive.

Quadrant 2

  • Write sales copy for new product – directly involves the money-making part of the business that is also in alignment of the goal.
  • Instruct virtual assistant to do research on competition – anything that could be considered useful for growing the business should be in Q2, like knowing how your competitors are doing.

Quadrant 3

  • Clean my apartment – this might seem important, but really is not and you should consider outsourcing this.
  • Download the new album by Kanye West – just because Kanye West might have released a new album does not constitute that it is important. Although his music is pretty damn awesome.

Quadrant 4

  • Watch this comedy skit on Youtube that John recommended
  • Re-organize my desktop icons
  • Drive by the grocery store for donuts

These Q4 tasks are not necessary and should be part of your workload, but can be great for when you have downtime.

Now that you have identified which tasks you want to work on, Q1 and Q2 tasks, it is now up to you to schedule how you want to do them. You can either do all Q1 tasks and then use the remaining time for Q2 tasks. Or you pick the frog eating method, where you start off with a Q2 tasks, then do all Q1 tasks, and then if you have time left you go back to quadrant two.

Next Actions

  • For the next task you need to accomplish, can you identify in which quadrant it belongs to?
  • When you start your day picking your most important tasks, use the quadrant to figure out what your most important tasks are.

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Posted by MBAchic  | September 13, 2011 at 10:35AM | Reply

Great post. Especially loved the “Respond to Jennifer’s FB wall post on possible date this weekend”You’re right – that is time sensitive, and super important!
Thanks for commenting on my guest post on!You can check out my blog at :)Jen from MBAchic

Posted by Jonathan  | June 11, 2012 at 4:21PM | Reply

I definitely love the idea of the quadrants for prioritizing tasks. How would you implement this in OmniFocus? I wish OF had data fields that could be sorted and filtered on. Would you do a context? or subcontext?

Posted by Thanh Pham  | June 12, 2012 at 11:12PM

Yes contexts could be one way of doing it. It would be similarly implemented like the ABC method we explained here:

Another way is to mentally figure out first which tasks belong where, and then only select the tasks in the upper quadrants to work on in Omnifocus.

Posted by Anish  | November 18, 2012 at 10:45AM | Reply

Hey T,

What’s your opinion of classifying my GTD tasks in OmniFocus by quadrant? It’d probably make it easier to choose my 5 tasks for the day.

Also, do you always choose 5 tasks, even if some of them won’t take more than 10-15 minutes long?


Posted by Thanh Pham  | November 19, 2012 at 9:51PM

Yeah that’s something you can definitely do. I used to do this all the time (I still sort of do).

Once I finish my most important tasks, I can call it a day. If I feel like working further, I can pick another 5 tasks. Or, I can guilt free enjoy my time. Really depends but the time estimate for each tasks doesn’t affect this.

Posted by Tanisha  | February 2, 2013 at 2:36PM | Reply

Thanks for the great use-case example using the Covey Quadrants! I have recently been having a hard time deciding what activities go in what quadrants. It’s because my goals/vision has changed recently and so some priorities that were previously a 1 are now a 3 or 2, etc. Thanks for reminding me that its important to review my goals/vision regularly and let that drive my activity prioritization. Especially with life changes such as employment, kids, marriage, medical issues, etc.

Posted by darcybrown  | March 26, 2013 at 8:17AM | Reply

Thanks for this.

I still struggle trying to apply this method simply because of quad 3 & 4 don’t seem realistic when planning. Who really puts “drive by shop for donuts”, “re-org desktop icons” on their todo list in the first place? If your todo list has that on it, then by all means it needs to be sorted out, but otherwise it just seems like you are either saying do it now “quad 1”, or do it later “quad 2”.

I have seen some people re-categorize quad 4 into a “someday maybe” type of thing, which sort of makes sense, but then I am still left wondering about “quad 3”. I never plan to do things that are not important. They certainly come up in life and then you either do them because its urgent and my job requires it, or ignore them, but I never stop to write it into my todo list if its not important.

Posted by Aaron Lynn  | April 26, 2013 at 5:47AM

I personally think quadrant 3 is one of those things where when things crop up you need to decide immediately if they’re quadrant 1 or quadrant 3. For example, if I get a call from the bank saying my credit card has some unauthorised transactions on it – that’s quadrant 1. If I get a call from a friend who’s a bit manic because his girlfriend texted him something vague, I may feel for him, but on my list of priorities handling that is a quadrant 3. Same thing can be applied to business – things that are critical to functioning and daily operations are quadrant 1. Handling team member disagreements or putting out fires that will resolve themselves are quadrant 3, unless they impede the continuation of work.

Quadrant 4 for me is “I want to do it at some point but it’s not pressing”. For example, listening to Japanese language audios or formalising some personal systems into text and flowcharts – not really that important, and not really urgent either, but I do want to get them done at some point.

Posted by Makinde Tayo  | May 13, 2013 at 8:38AM | Reply

I think this principle is greatly helpful, and if diligently applied, can culminate in less stress at work and hours of quality time to prosecute personal matters that cannot be accommodate within the work hour. But in real life, a no of tasks begging for attention in quandrants 3 and 4 may turn out to be ‘big issues’. Kindly explain how we can accommodate in a tight schedule of priorities, a task which was never forseen but later turn out to be quandrant 1 issue.

Posted by Rayne  | April 10, 2014 at 2:15PM | Reply

I revisited this post when I discovered the Chrome Store app: Time Keeper this morning. If the 4-Quadrant method works for you, I suggest checking out Time Keeper.

Posted by Alex Haid  | May 17, 2014 at 7:02AM | Reply

Thanks for this great summary of Coveys quadrants.

Since years I think that it is a good system and that I should start using it. But it actually fails because I havent found an good and nice app that is designed for the system. With a view for the tasks that has these 4 quadrants visually implemented, where you can drag-n-drop tasks between them…

Do you know of an app for Mac OS and iOS (best would be a desktop client and a mobile app that can be synced). I read that you favour OmniFocus, but as far as I understand it is not designed for Covey and the ABC idea seems too far away for me.

Thanks, Alex

Posted by Al  | May 27, 2014 at 3:24PM

I found this post because I was trying to determine if Priority Matrix (an iOS / Mac / Android / PC app) would work for me. After trying the GTD thing and various other methods and apps I think this might be the one. There is also Quadranto, but reviews of that app are not quite as good.

Posted by Andrei  | August 31, 2015 at 1:46AM | Reply

Which quadrant goes in the first hour of the morning? Our “peak” hour? 1 or 2? “Eat the Frog”, first? Or, do the “useful” first? Thanks :)

Posted by Derek  | October 4, 2015 at 6:42AM | Reply

I’m a big fan of the FranklinCovey material (I’m a certified client facilitator in their 5 Choices for Extraordinary Productivity).

Please go back and review the Q2 Matrix as it is now called. Briefly:
Q1 is the quadrant of Necessity (Important and Urgent; things come AT you). These MUST be done and are a break-even activity
Q2 is the quadrant of Extraordinary Productivity (Important but not Urgent; these are high return planning and other proactive activities). These you CHOOSE to do and give highest ROI.
Q3 is the quadrant of Distraction (Not Important but they FEEL Urgent (but are not because they are not important))–it takes discernment to determine these “false Q1s”
Q4 is the quadrant of Waste (Not important, Not urgent). You don’t want to be here EVER. These are trivial work, avoidance activities and pretty much anything IN EXCESS. Watching TV (to excess), gaming (to excess), reading (to excess), hanging out (to excess), etc.. Any one of those previous activities could be Q2 because they can be renewal/recreation/relationship-building activities; however, in excess, they become time wasters.

The objective is to maximize Q2 activities (planning, checklists, relationship building, etc) so that there are fewer Q1s (there will never be zero Q1s because…life happens).

With discernment and good relationships, one can work to eliminate Q3 activities such as unnecessary meetings and trivial work.

With a life energized by Q2 activities, one will have the strength and discernment to avoid Q4 activities completely.

Hope that sheds more light on the Q2 matrix.

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