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the quadrants of success

October 29, 2001: This message was distributed by Papyrus News. Feel free to forward this message to others, preferably with this introduction. For info on Papyrus News, including how to (un)subscribe or access archives, see <>.

People often ask me how I manage to get so much done. My standard reply, picked up from a friend of mine, has always been, "It's all a matter of priorities: anything really important, I put off! :-)

Humor aside, I do believe though that there is a method for productivity, in academia and other areas. After watching a lot of graduate students and young faculty members get too bogged down to do what's really important to them, I decided it's worth sharing. This framework, by the way, is not original. I'd like to credit whoever thought of it, but I don't know who that is off-hand (if anybody knows, please advise me.)

Next day: Thanks to all the people who wrote to tell me that the four quadrants are discussed in Stephen Covey's book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (apparently on p. 146-156 of the 1989 edition published by Fireside).

The key to the framework is dividing your activities into four quadrants, with one axis divided by IMPORTANCE and the other axis divided by URGENCY (see attachment). Your activities are thus divided into four categories:

I. Not important, not urgent
II. Not important, urgent
III. Important, not urgent
IV. Important, urgent

Examples for each of these categories would depend on the person. For me, an example in category I is watching TV. An example of category II is finishing some paperwork that is due shortly. An example in category III is getting started on a new book I'd like to publish in two years. An example in category IV is finishing a conference paper that will be presented in two days.

II. Not important, Urgent
Example: Finishing some paperwork that is due today
IV. Important, Urgent
Example: Finishing a paper that you are presenting at a conference this week
I. Not important, Not Urgent
Example: Watching TV
III. Important, Not Urgent
Example: Getting started on a new book that you'd like to publish in two years

When I ask people which category is the critical one for success, they often say "category IV." But that's not the case. Everybody completes the activities in category IV, because there is so much pressure to do so. The critical category for success is actually category III.

(One caveat. By success, I mean success as YOU define it. In your life, success might not be in publishing, it might involve getting in good physical condition, or developing a new course that you want to teach, or spending more time with your family. Whatever success means to you is what's important.)

The reason that category III is critical is because it's so darned hard. Though, in the long-run, it's very important to you, it's hard to find time for it because it's not urgent. Thus it constantly comes in conflict with category II (and even category I) activities.

What to do then? Category III has to be consciously planned into your life. Set goals and deadlines for important, non-urgent activities and then organize your life around them. Decide that every Tuesday and Thursday you are going to work on that long-term book project (or go to the gym, or spend time with your kids, or plan your new course, or whatever you set as a priority) and then organize the rest of your life around that. That way, category III activities can get scheduled in FIRST, and category II (or I) activities get worked in around them.

All of this is common sense, really, and most of us already know it. However, this is just another way of conceptualizing it that some people may find helpful.


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Last updated: October 31, 2001 in Hot Metal Pro 6.0