I recently came across a surprisingly lucid model for time management. The model consists of just two variables that together categorize the tasks we do roughly into 4 bins. The two variables are 'Importance' and 'Urgency'. That is, a task has an importance score, and an urgency score. To simplify even further, imagine that each of the two variables is just a binary variable: that is, a given task is either important or not, and either urgent or not.
It is necessary to first understand the difference between 'important' and 'urgent'. An important task is one which is aligned with one's long term goals or makes a significant difference to one's life in the long term. An urgent task is one which demands immediate attention.
Which of the four quadrants above do you think we should operate in? Let's look at each of them:
4: Not urgent, and not important: This is the most useless category. Examples would include mindless browsing, excessive use of Facebook. This is the quadrant of waste.
3: Not important but urgent: Petty things that sometimes take away our attention and time, preventing us from focusing on the important things, for example: receiving an email about a shopping sale on a website that is about to expire can lead us to stop what we are doing and start looking into shopping online. Very dangerous. This quadrant is called the quadrant of deception.
2: Urgent and important: When something important is delayed till it can no longer be delayed, it becomes urgent. Example: John wants to go to graduate school after college, but has delayed working on his application till the very last minute. Now the task is both important and urgent. This is the quadrant of procrastination. Important tasks done in a hurry are rarely done properly, and do not lead to satisfaction.
1: Not urgent, but important: This is the quadrant of planned action. It is the quadrant we want to be in in order to manage time well. Important tasks are planned and assigned time slots before they become urgent.
Note to self: Eliminate tasks in Q4, Q3, and move tasks in Q2 to Q1.
Edit: I just learnt that this model was popularized by Steven Covey, who passed away unexpectedly earlier this year.