Skip to content

Time Management Matrix: Urgent vs. Important - Living In Box Two

A few semesters ago, I was sitting in my Psychology of Human Adjustment class complaining – even though I don’t like to admit it – to my friend about all the tasks I needed to complete that week. My professor walked by, heard my conversation, and said to me, “Live in box two, so you aren’t always on fire.”

Learn how the Time Management Matrix can help separate the important tasks in life from the distractions

I was quite confused as to what she what taking about, so I asked, “What do you mean, ‘Live in box two’?” She replied, “Look it up in your textbook, or wait for the lecture.” I didn’t find her response very helpful because I still had no idea what she was talking about, and frankly I didn’t feel like searching the textbook, so I patiently awaited the lecture.

When lecture day arrived, my professor had us write down a list of everything we needed and wanted to complete within the next week. She had us write down everything, from school related items to work related items to things as simple as doing the dishes and looking at Twitter. Now, with a full list of to-do’s, she handed us a time management matrix that looked like this:


Quadrant I:
Urgent & Important
“Crises” or “Problems”

Quadrant II:
Not Urgent & Important
“Personal Goals”


Quadrant III:
Urgent & Not Important

Quadrant IV:
Not Urgent & Not Important

Figure 1 – Covey Time Management Matrix

With our To-Do List, we were to prioritize our tasks based on importance, NOT urgency, and then place each activity into the appropriate quadrant, based on the constraints of the quadrants, which I will explain below.

Understanding the Time Management Matrix

“Living in box two” is a concept that comes from Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Decision Principle that was popularized by Stephen Covey in his famous book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey designed a matrix that helps individuals prioritize activities, determining which activities are important, which are urgent, and which can be considered distractions or interruptions.

According to Covey, urgency can be defined as requiring immediate attention, and importance has to do with an outcome that contributes to an individual’s mission, values, and high priority goals.

Here is a breakdown of each quadrant:

Quadrant I: These activities are both urgent and important and require our immediate attention and can be considered crises and problems. Individuals who live in Quadrant I are often consumed with problems all day every day and only find peace in escaping to Quadrant IV. These individuals can be characterized as crisis mangers, problem-minded people, and deadline-driven producers. Living in Quadrant I is not sustainable, as you are always “on fire,” as my professor would say.

Quadrant II: Ideally, everyone should strive to “live in box two.” These activities are important, but not urgent, and help achieve personal goals. These activities are things we need to do, but never seem to get around to, such as exercising, building relationships, and long-term strategizing. Individuals who “live in box two” are often opportunity-minded people and have a relatively low number of crises, which allows for more goal oriented activities and increased productivity.

Quadrant III: Activities that fall into this quadrant are urgent, but not important and often get mistaken for being important. Individuals living in Quadrant III spend time reacting to the urgency based on the expectations and priorities of others. These activities are often seen as distractions because they are urgent, but not important to the individual.

Quadrant IV: Activities held in this quadrant are not urgent nor important and have very little value, which takes time away from other urgent and important activities. This quadrant is where surfing the web and watching TV lie along with other timewasting activities. Individuals that reside in Quadrant IV lead very irresponsible and unproductive lives.

Most people find themselves living in Quadrants I and III, leaving no time for Quadrant II. Stephen Covey stresses the important of moving to Quadrant II, which results in fewer crises and problems. Covey’s Time Management Matrix will help individuals make the move to being effective as well as efficient.

How to Use the Matrix

Here are the steps for prioritizing your activities:

  1. Create a To-Do List and include all tasks you need and want to do within the next week (or set period of time of your choosing).
  2. Prioritize these activities based on importance, NOT urgency. You can use a scale of 1 to 5 or re-order the activities based on importance; either option will work.
  3. Sort all the activities into the appropriate quadrants based on the constraints above.
  4. Now evaluate where you are spending most of your time and consider how you can start working toward Quadrant II.

Now that you understand the basics of the matrix, you can put it to use and start moving toward “living n box two.”

In my next blog, I will provide a strategy for tackling the different quadrants, and provide Stephen Covey’s advice on how to move into Quadrant II. If you would like to be notified when a new ArcherPoint blog is published, subscribe to our expert team members’ blogs.

Blog Tags: 
Read ArcherPoint's Blog Follow us on Twitter Follow us on Facebook Follow us on LinkedIn Link to our RSS feed Join us on Google+ Watch us on YouTube