I’ve read just about every time management article I can get my hands on. However, by far the best two pieces of advice came from an internal meeting that I had the opportunity to sit in on. Despite what you may have otherwise heard about time management, or have tried yourself, the two most important ways to understand time is through (1) the Action Priority matrix and (2) time blocking.

Arguably stemming from Eisenhower’s “Urgent/Important” principle, the Action-Priority Matrix (AP Matrix) forces us to evaluate the task at hand. Eisenhower had said, “I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”

The AP Matrix takes it a step further by guiding you on how to respond to tasks based on a quadrant system. (I) The top left quadrant is for “quick wins”; (II) the top right is or “major projects”; (III) the bottom left is for “fill ins”; (IV) and the bottom right is for “thankless tasks.” Vertically, the quadrant moves up toward increased impact, starting at the bottom from “low” and moving up to “high.” Horizontally, the quadrant moves across from left to right, starting at the bottom left from “low” and moving across to the right to “high.”

The AP Matrix is designed to guide you on decision-making as tasks and requests from clients or co-workers trickle in. “Quick wins”, for example, are things you can quickly act on to achieve a “win” from a client. The client recognizes it immediately and is pleased with it. “Major projects” are like marathons – a lot of work but worth it with a long-game in mind. “Fill ins” are something that really just anyone can do and it just needs to get done, and “thankless tasks” are tasks that need doing but which really aren’t going to be rewarded or even recognized in some cases.

A simpler way to view the Action Priority Matrix is to consider each quadrant simply in terms of impact and effort:

Quadrant I: “Quick Wins” – High Impact, Low Effort
Quadrant II: “Major Projects” – High Impact, High Effort
Quadrant III: “Fill Ins” – Low Impact, Low Effort
Quadrant IV” Thankless Tasks” – Low Impact, High Effort

When you can see the level of impact vs effort involved, you get a better idea of the value of each quadrant versus the investment required of you. So the next time a tasks comes in, a client requests a project, or a co-worker drops something on your lap, think of each one and decide where in this quadrant that request falls. If it’s a quick win, then work to knock it out quickly. You always want a win since it’s something that has a high value with little investment or effort required. If it’s a major project, then schedule that project and create milestones to help you reach your goal.

Major projects can become tricky; it takes a lot of your investment and clients don’t see the value until the end. Having a wait a long time to see a win can be challenging for many clients, and make them reconsider your value or decide to throw something else on your workload because they feel they’re not getting results – or at least they’re not seeing them yet. To prevent any hesitation on the part of the client, and to keep control of your workload, try sharing milestones for larger projects. This way the client has an idea of what to expect throughout the process and can see you making incremental wins toward the larger goal.

As far as “fill ins” go, it’s a waste of your time to do it yourself unless you absolutely have to. It’s best to give this task to someone else. Delegate it to an intern or outsource it if you can.

Finally you have the “thankless tasks.” These tasks need to be done, they’re often time consuming, and they’re thankless. The trick to dealing with quadrant IV is to avoid these tasks all together or to find a way to move it out of this quadrant so it has value.