Stephen Covey’s 4 Quadrants: The Secret to Productivity

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The 4 Quadrants of the 7 Habits help us manage our time and be proactive. But what are the Quadrants 1, 2, 3, and 4? How can they help us be more proactive and manage time efficiently?

When attempting to prioritize time, we can turn to Stephen Covey’s 4 Quadrants. The 7 Habits Quadrants separate tasks by categorizing their levels of urgency and importance. See how you can be proactive with your time be managing it according to your values, according to Stephen Covey’s Quadrants.

What are Quadrants 1, 2, 3, and 4?

Stephen Covey’s 4 Quadrants that help us understand how to manage our time. As we discussed in the time management matrix, these Quadrants are an extremely important part of how we prioritize our time.

Take a moment to think about your life and your goals. What are some things that you could do — but aren’t doing — that would significantly benefit your life and get your closer to achieving your goals? This is an important task, and one that you’re neglecting. The Stephen Covey Quadrants help us understand how the tasks in our lives differ, and how much attention we should pay to them for maximum effectiveness.

All tasks can be categorized based on their urgency and importance: An activity can be one (either urgent or important), both, or neither. Urgent matters are time sensitive, and they tend to grab your attention; this can be something as simple as a ringing phone. Important matters contribute toward your goals, values, and personal mission statement. We react to urgent matters, while important tasks that are not urgent require us to be proactive.

Picture a square divided into four Quadrants: One axis measures whether or not something is urgent, and the other measures whether or not it’s important. In the 7 Habits, Quadrants means four different classifications. Stephen Covey’s Quadrants 1, 2, 3, and 4 break down like this:


UrgentNot Urgent
ImportantQuadrant 1 Urgent and ImportantQuadrant 2 Not Urgent, but Important
Not ImportantQuadrant 3 Urgent but Not ImportantQuadrant 4 Neither Urgent nor Important

Quadrant 1 is urgent and important. Crises and problems live here, and life inevitably throws some Quadrant 1 tasks at all of us. However, some people seem to spend all their time in Stephen Covey’s Quadrant 1, constantly putting out fires and feeling like they never have time or energy to tackle anything that’s not urgent; in need of respite, they occasionally escape to the more leisurely Quadrant 4, where things are neither urgent nor important. The catch is that the more time you spend in Quadrant 1, the more you will be stuck there, because you don’t have time to do the maintenance and preventive measures that help avoid crises. 

Quadrant 3 is urgent, but not important. These kinds of activities can eat up your precious time and energy, without giving much value back to your life. This is one of the more familiar of the Stephen Covey Quadrants. Some people don’t even realize that these matters are not important, assuming that urgency implies importance; but the urgency is often dictated by other people’s priorities and expectations — what other people tell you must get done — rather than your own goals and values. 

Quadrant 4 is neither urgent nor important. These are things you may do purely for enjoyment, or out of confusion about what’s truly important. Quadrants 3 and 4 are irresponsible uses of your time, because they contribute nothing toward your life, and effective people tend to avoid these activities. 

Quadrant 2 is not urgent, but important. This is where effective people focus their time and energy, and the discipline to prioritize these tasks is key to self-management and achieving your personal mission. Stephen Covey’s Quadrant 2 includes activities that could easily be put off for their lack of apparent urgency, but which will greatly benefit your life in the long term if you invest the time in them; they include developing relationships, defining your personal mission statement, exercising, and performing preventive maintenance (e.g. oil changes for your car, health check-ups, flossing, or home maintenance). In the 7 Habits, Quadrants all help you understand and prioritize, but Quadrant 2 is where you want to spend most of your time.

Effective people are proactive and understand the value of investing their time and energy into Quadrant 2 activities. Effective people respond to opportunities to do what’s important, instead of reacting to urgent problems. When things come up, it’s easier to determine what’s important and what isn’t once you’ve defined your goals and personal mission statement. When you think about Quadrants 1, 2, 3, and 4, it’s important to understand that they each have a place in your life. But in Stephen Covey’s 4 Quadrants, you want to strive to spend most of your time and energy on Quadrant 2.

The 4 Quadrants in 7 Habits of Highly Effective People can help us understand where certain tasks fit into our lives according to our values, and use them to manage time effectively and be proactive.

Stephen Covey’s 4 Quadrants: The Secret to Productivity

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