At War with Stephen Covey

Have you ever seen Stephen Covey’s Four Quadrants of time management? I wouldn’t be surprised if you had: Gaia knows they’re everywhere across the Internet, and they’re also featured as a core component of many many management and success seminars.


I’ve cherry-picked a reproduction of the quadrants that makes the point I want. The trick, according to this structure, is to maximize your investment in the “Important but Not Urgent” quadrant, so that important things don’t elevate to “Urgent and Important” (i.e., crisis level). In the meantime, be very wary of the “Urgent but Not Important” category, because this is where the majority of the time sucks and distractors are likely to be housed. (The expectation here is that “Not Urgent/Not Important” things are fairly easy to jettison, while the urgent unimportant things can sometimes be harder to let go of. Fair enough.)

But what if it’s pretty much all urgent and important?

I feel as if I live much of my life by what I have come to call the “bonfire method of project management.”  Which conflagration is burning hottest and brightest, most likely to take down the homestead? Well, throw a little water (effort, time attention) in that direction so it dies down a touch. Now re-assess: which fire is hottest now?

Lather, rinse, repeat. (Yes, I know: I’m mixing my elements along with my metaphors. Bad witch!)

This pattern may be nothing more than an ongoing demonstration at the way I suck at self-motivation and planning ahead. Regardless, I am living a week where pretty much everything feels legitimately Important. And the tension I’m feeling is that the most urgent (time-sensitive) of these important things are all the items driven by external responsibilities — hitting the next work deadline, doing my homework for the retreat weekend, packing for the trip — while the items on the list that are arguably less urgent (i.e., most readily postpone-able) are the tasks and practices I have chosen for myself — journal-writing, ed-reading, JALC.

priorities_despairYes, this is, admittedly, an oversimplification. After all, no one forced me into my wacky non-profit career, and even though the retreat homework and travel is a function of me following someone else’s  direction, the retreat is also an investment in my soul’s growth.

Still, this is another pattern that often runs in my life: putting a higher priority on my responsibilities to others as compared to my responsibility to myself. After all, one of the trickiest parts of Covey’s whole structure is figuring out an answer to this key question: Important to whom?

I was listening to The Jayhawks recently, and there’s a snatch of song lyric that captures this for me:

I don’t expect you to see
But she’s important to me, babe
I guess it’s just one man’s problem


After all, I bet those “Urgent but Not Important” things you’re supposed to be so wary of in your ruthless Covey-an self-management structure are things that are actually legitimately important to someone, if not to you. So that ruthlessly efficient choice setting you up for success could also be the kind of choice that’s screwing some other poor sap over.

Maybe blogging or journal-writing or reading about education all seem like stupid priorities compared to Huge Essential Work projects and Elevated Cutting-Edge Soul Development work. Or, at least, maybe they would seem that way to someone outside my skin, outside my system, outside my soul and aura.

But they feel vitally important to me, babe. One woman’s priorities.

Which is why I continue cheating my sleep these past few days, trying to sprinkle some water on every last one of these important bonfires.

I don’t exactly know how I’m gonna make it to the plane intact at this pace, or, after that, how I’ll have enough gas in the tank to survive the weekend. But I’m just gonna have to figure that out step by step and minute by minute.

Because every bit of this matters.


Image credits:

Covey’s quadrants:



5 thoughts on “At War with Stephen Covey

  1. Never could stand the pat Stephen Covey answers to life – who put out the fires at his house??? Probably his wife. I’m pretty much a “pantser” too and have the biggest fires sitting in front of me at this desk – between me and the moniter. But ya know what? Sometimes I get tired of the have-tos and figure talking to a friend is a lot more fun. The fires can smolder for a bit…..


  2. I totally get what you’re saying about letting the “have-tos” smolder now and again. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of making that choice, or sometimes it’s because I realize that the old “put-myself-last” pattern has brought me to a place where the need for self-care IS the brightest bonfire in the bunch…. 😉


  3. Pingback: Lessons Learned | Self-Love: It's Just Another Lifestyle Change

  4. Diana

    I think you misunderstand Covey’s quadrant. What’s important to you and God’s will for your life is what the quadrant is all about. Searching educational websites might not be a time waster for you. It might be a priority! But when you began looking at fly fishing or the latest celeb gossip, those might be time waisters for you as they have little or no impact in helping you accomplish your goals in the things that are most important to you. However if I were an avid fly fisherman or a cutting-edge journalist the latter two might actually be important to me. He isn’t trying to tell you how to live your life, he’s trying to help you identify what’s really important to you … helping you hone (sp?) your personal values … and helping you feel your day with things that are most important to you, most valuable to you. Things that will help you reach your dreams and your goals.

    A busy life … is a blessed life!
    Especially if you’re busy doing what really matters to you!

    May you find joy in the midst of your chaos as gracefully learn how to distinguish between what’s important and what’s a distraction to your dreams and goals.


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