Back in 2018, we wrote that 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.
Lately, the Chenmark team has been feeling like our to-do list is getting longer… and longer and the idea of inbox zero seems laughable. There does not seem to be enough time in the day to get done what we feel needs to be accomplished to achieve our goals. We feel sleep waning as the nights get later and the mornings get earlier in an attempt to stay on top of our tasks. While some of this may be a reflection of the impending holiday, an adjustment to two kids instead of one, budgeting processes, various operational initiatives, a deal in the works, etc., etc., that reality is that life is just busy and always will be. So, we find ourselves wondering if we are spending time on the tasks that will truly move the needle.
To do this, we often refer to the ‘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:
| Urgent || Not Urgent |
| Not Important ||(3)|
As noted in 2018, small business operators are good at staying out of quadrant 4, generally 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).
Under-allocation to quadrant 2 is a common issue and the one that we feel ourselves grappling with at the moment. 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 taken up by 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.’”
With some reflection, our current feeling of busyness is more an indication of chasing quadrant 1, 2, and 3 items simultaneously during a time of unusual activity. Writing posts list this one reminds us that “what is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important,” so we continue to schedule time for quadrant 2 tasks while not push aside anything else. The unfortunate reality is that work on quadrant two takes time and the effects of that work take even longer to gain traction. Right now it would be a lot easier just to abandon quadrant 2, but that is a trap. Instead, we are more comfortable — in fact, energized by — our busyness since it is in pursuit of chasing better.