One of the biggest challenges for the operator of a small business is time management. With limited resources and personnel, there is always more work to be done than time available. While many operators overcome this hurdle by simply working longer hours, there is obviously a point at which this strategy has diminishing returns, as deferred sleep is not a sustainable competitive advantage.
At some point, we must be thinking about working smarter, spending more time ‘on’ our business, not ‘in’ our business. While it differs from person to person, we have noticed that most successful people have some sort of framework – whether formal or informal – they use on a daily basis to help them navigate through the plethora of items competing for attention.
One of the most popular such formal frameworks is the so-called ‘Eisenhower Matrix‘. Also known as the ‘Urgent-Important Matrix’, this tool helps us figure out what’s important versus urgent. Developed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and popularized in Stephen Covey’s 1989 book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, the tool helps figure out which tasks to prioritize, and which to either delegate or not do at all.
Urgent Customer Requests
Calling Friends and Family
Long-term Business Strategy
Users advocate putting together a master personal and business to-do list, and then assigning items into the matrix, limiting yourself to a maximum of eight tasks per quadrant. Once categorized, tasks should be prioritized as follows:
| Not Urgent
| Not Important
Generally speaking, small business operators are good at staying out of quadrant 4, and are not spending time mindlessly scrolling social media. However, while working on your business involves spending more time in quadrant 2 – doing things like relationship building, workforce training, and strategic planning – most operators are stuck jumping in between quadrant 1 (crises) and quadrant 3 (incessant interruptions with nobody to delegate to).
Interestingly, under-allocation to quadrant 2 is a common issue. For instance, in Covey’s 1996 book, First Things First, he highlighted a group of shopping center managers who all reported that building personal relationships with the owners of the stores in the shopping centers would have a positive impact on their business, something that falls into quadrant 2 – important but not urgent. Upon review, the managers were only spending 5% of their time on this activity, with the rest of the time taking up with seemingly important, quadrant 1, tasks (i.e., meetings and phone calls). Once the managers decided to proactively allocate more time to building relationships with the store owners, their results improved dramatically. Business Insider explains more:
“The main takeaway here is that sometimes you need to take a step back so you can see the disparity between how you should spend your time and how you are spending your time. Then you can make a plan to adjust your schedule so that you allot more time and energy to the activities that will actually produce long-term results, instead of the ones that will produce results five minutes later. As a consequence, Covey says, you’ll end up with fewer Quadrant I activities to deal with: “Your crises and problems would shrink to manageable proportions because you would be thinking ahead, working on the roots, doing the preventive things that keep situations from developing into crises in the first place.””
While larger companies have some forcing mechanisms to ensure time is spent on quadrant 2 activities – i.e., meetings with Boards of Directors and/or investors – smaller businesses generally lack such accountability structures. One of the working hypotheses of the Chenmark business model is that, over time, we can create opportunities for our operators to spend more time in quadrant 2, train people to take over quadrant 3 tasks, and minimize the daily crises of quadrant 1. And while it’s very much a work in progress, this week’s reading was a good reminder that despite the rapid change occurring in our world today, sometimes Ike’s simple 2 by 2 matrix is all one needs to remind herself that “what is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.”