How I managed my time – the Covey way

March 16, 2011, 9:00 AM UTC

Can Franklin Covey help an overstressed editor who eats too many lunches at her desk transform herself into a doyenne of efficient time management?

Like many others in this lean, mean, job-strapped economy, I entered 2010 thankful to be employed — and with much more on my plate. As the months wore on and the work piled up, for the first time in my professional life I began thinking about all those time-management theories I’d always rolled my eyes at.

My colleagues offered some suggestions: One sent me a 12-step program for improved productivity (limit e-mail time, avoid newsfeeds). Another referred me to venture capitalist Fred Wilson’s blog post declaring “e-mail bankruptcy.” A third told me about a method he used called “(10×2)*5”: Focus for 10 minutes, take a two-minute break, and repeat for an hour. But all of them seemed easier said than done.

So when Fortune’s parent company offered a day-long Franklin Covey time-management course, I jumped at the chance. I would become a motor of productivity! I would find more hours in the day! I would tap efficiency resources I didn’t know I had! The session, “FOCUS: Achieving Your Highest Priorities,” was a full eight hours, prompting sarcastic comments from my colleagues when it fell on a busy day in our cycle. But I resisted the urge to cancel.

Right away our teacher, Vicky Gilmore, introduced us to one of the main pillars of the course: Franklin Covey’s Time Matrix, which categorizes work into four quadrants along two axes:”urgent” and “not urgent” across the top, and “important” and “not important” on the side. The best one is Quadrant 2 — not urgent but important, or big tasks you can do without the pressure of crisis deadlines. The worst: Quadrant 4, not urgent and not important, a.k.a. busywork and time-wasting tasks. (Not that lethargy has no value: Ordering takeout sushi and watching 30 Rock, Gilmore told us, is actually Quadrant 2. Way to go, Time Matrix!)

The goal, Gilmore instructed, was to “live above the line,” or always try to make sure the work you are doing is important. While I liked the matrix, what I liked even more were the practical tips that came later. We watched a surprisingly effective Steven Covey video, for example, that featured a woman trying to fit a bunch of big rocks in a bucket already full of small pebbles. (Can you spot the metaphor?) Gilmore also gave us several tangible pointers: Break big, daunting tasks down into “doable chunks” of 45 minutes; when mapping out your week, make room for the biggest projects (the rocks) first; to avoid setting yourself up for failure, schedule only 65% of your available time. And this gem: By turning off the “ghost alert,” the little window that floats onto your computer screen to announce new e-mails, you can reduce distraction tremendously.

One of the biggest lessons came toward the end of the class, when Gilmore introduced us to another Coveyism: the importance of “sharpening the saw,” or taking time away from things that feel urgent but aren’t to do something that will actually help in the long run (the analogy is a woodcutter who labors for several days, becoming less and less productive because he refuses to take time out to sharpen his saw). I later heard someone attribute this to Abe Lincoln instead, but whatever: For me this was the magic moment. I’d long known that I have a tendency to get buried in the small stuff. That there was a name, an analogy — a Steven Coveyism! — focused me like a laser (or maybe a sharp saw). Eating at my desk, I learned, is a classic example of not doing that sharpening, as was my impulse to cancel the time-management class when it got in the way of that day’s long-forgotten deadline.

Was the class worth it? The principles that stuck with me I could have learned in, say, two hours instead of eight — an irony I thought about while trying to make up for the work I’d missed. And yet I find myself applying those principles every day: I plan my schedule differently now, I focus more on important projects, and turning off my e-mail ghost alert has done wonders. (Seriously. Try it.) I’m still not completely cured, though: It took a nanosecond to figure out how to turn the alert off, but in a classic case of not sharpening my saw, it took me a full three months to get around to doing it.

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