Stephen Covey‘s Time Management Matrix Explained


Although time seems to fly by, we all have the same 24 hours a day. So why is it that some people are able to accomplish so much more than the majority of the population? One possible explanation can be found in their skill to manage time more efficiently than others. But how is it possible to cope with the flood of tasks that all require our immediate attention? In a time where missing deadlines is not an option, the Covey time management grid can help you to manage your available time more efficiently. Covey’s matrix allows you to organize your priorities much better than before. The idea of using four quadrants to determine the priority of a task was introduced by American keynote speaker Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey’s system makes use of four different quadrants that allow you to prioritize tasks in relation to their importance and urgency, helping you to decide whether you need to address a task immediately or if you can postpone it.

As you can see from the graphic below, the time management matrix is separated into four quadrants that are organized by importance and urgency.


Source: Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

The matrix, also known as Eisenhower’s Urgent-Important Principle, distinguishes between importance and urgency:

  • Important responsibilities contribute to the achievement of your goals.
  • Urgent responsibilities require immediate attention. These activities are often tightly linked to the accomplishment of someone else’s goal. Not dealing with these issues will cause immediate consequences.

Here’s a summary of the meaning of each quadrant:

  • Quadrant Iimportant deadlines with high urgency
    The first quadrant contains tasks and responsibilities that need immediate attention.
  • Quadrant IIlong-term development and strategizing
    The second quadrant is for items that are important without requiring immediate action. Covey points out that this quadrant should be used for long-term strategizing.
  • Quadrant IIIdistractions with high urgency
    The third quadrant is reserved for tasks that are urgent, without being important. Covey recommends minimizing or even eliminating these tasks as they do not contribute to your output. Delegation is also an option here.
  • Quadrant IVactivities with little to no value
    The fourth and last quadrant focuses on tasks and responsibilities that do not yield any value—items that are unimportant and not urgent. These time wasters should be eliminated at any costs.

If you apply the Covey time management matrix to your own professional and private life, you will notice that the majority of your activities can be found within quadrant I and III. Experience shows that quadrant II is neglected by most people, especially in the area of their own personal development.

However, the importance of the second quadrant must not be underestimated. If you notice a big gap in this quadrant it means that your focus lies too much on the operative aspect, while the strategic perspective is left behind. For this reason, Covey addresses quadrant II as an exceptionally important part of the matrix. Without this quadrant, efficient time management would not be possible, as it requires strategic elements as well.

Explanation of Covey’s time management matrix

In the following, you can find a detailed explanation of all four quadrants that can be found in Covey’s time management matrix.

The four time management quadrants

Quadrant 1 – urgent and important

The activities in quadrant 1 can be differentiated into items that could not have been foreseen, and those items that could. The latter can be avoided by developing plans and paying close attention to their execution.

The first quadrant should only contain those activities and responsibilities that require your immediate attention. The space is reserved for emergencies and extremely important deadlines. Should a major crisis arise you will have to postpone other tasks.

  • Crises
  • Pressing problems
  • Projects that are deadline driven
  • Emergencies
  • Last-minute preparations

Quadrant 2 – not urgent but important

The items found in quadrant 2 do not have a high urgency but can play an important role in the future. This quadrant is not only reserved for strategic planning, but also to items related to health, education, exercise, and career. Investing time in these areas might not be urgent at the present day, but in the long term, it will be of the greatest importance.


Pay close attention that you have scheduled enough time for quadrant 2 activities, in order to avoid them to become quadrant 1 items. During so will allow you to increase your capability of finishing your tasks in time.

  • Planning
  • Preparing
  • Training
  • Exercise, health, and recreation

Quadrant 3 – urgent but not important

The third quadrant summarizes items that appear to have a high urgency, but are not at all important. Some of these activities might be entirely ego-driven, without contributing any value. In fact, these activities are obstacles that stand in-between you and your goals. If possible, try to delegate these items or consider rescheduling them.

If another person is causing you quadrant 3 tasks it could be appropriate to decline their request politely. If this is not an option, try to avoid being constantly interrupted by appointing timeslots to those that often need your help. This way, you can address all their issues at once, without regularly interrupting your concentration.

  • Interruptions
  • Meetings
  • Small talk

Quadrant 4 – not urgent and not important

The fourth and last quadrant contains all those activities that do not contribute any value at all—the obvious time wasters. All the activities contained therein are nothing more than distractions; avoid them as much as you can. You should also try to eliminate all the items in this list, no matter how entertaining.

  • Trivia
  • Time wasters
  • Surfing the Internet without purpose
  • Watching TV for hours

How to apply the time matrix?

When using the Important-Urgent matrix it is recommended to try to maximize the time spent with quadrant II activities. This will allow you (in the long run) to reduce quadrant I activities, as many of them could have been quadrant II activities—if better planning had been implemented.

The objective of using the time management matrix is to question whether a certain activity brings you closer to your goals or not. If this is the case, these responsibilities need to be prioritized over those tasks that might demand your time but do not contribute to your goals. Delay activities that do not contribute any significant output until more important tasks are finished.

Covey’s time management grid has many possible applications, two of which will be explained in the following.

Reprioritizing your current ‘to-do’ list

The time matrix can be applied as a tool that allows you to reprioritize the importance and urgency of your current and upcoming tasks. By sorting the tasks and responsibilities into the appropriate grid you will be able to quickly identify activities that need your immediate attention.

One week assessments

The second approach of using the time management matrix requires a weekly assessment. You will need six blank copies of the matrix, five for each workday and one for your weekly assessment. At the end of each workday, you list all tasks and responsibilities and the amount of time spent. At the end of the week, you summarize the five days of your week in one matrix. Make sure to summarize the amount of time spent on a given task.

After you have summarized the week you can then evaluate how well the time was spent and whether or not you need to make any adaptations.

What do you think of Stephen Covey’s time management matrix? Does it help you to increase your productivity?


About Author

Steve is the founder of Planet of Success, the #1 choice when it comes to motivation, self-growth and empowerment. This world does not need followers. What it needs is people who stand in their own sovereignty. Join us in the quest to live life to the fullest!


  1. Hey Steve,

    That’s an awesome explanation right there! Loved how you pointed out how important Quadrant 2 actually is. It’s where I struggle with the most, to be honest. Procrastination, and all that.

    Also, “ego-driven”–you’re absolutely right on that one–it is so true!

    Great post!

    Best regards.

    • Hi Ethan,

      Thanks a lot for your feedback. I’m glad the article was helpful to you.

      I think quadrant 2 is the one we all should focus a lot more attention on. But often times we seem to forget it.

  2. Hi Steve,

    nice summary of the application of the Matrix. Do you apply this particular approach and if so how does it scale with large task lists?
    Beyond several tasks per quadrant it may get a bit unwieldy for a pen and paper approach. I had a look recently for a software based approach and came up with Priority Matrix. If interested you can refer to the link below. I understand some users of this have tasks in the thousands so I think software, (and lots of filtering) may be the only practical way to use this approach for large lists. Also when considering this method, I wonder about the scalability of it across team members. Not everyone has the same opinion of important or urgent so without close alignment, tasks could be “misplaced”.


  3. From one Steve to another,

    I’ve seen this 4-quadrant matrix many times. It is often attributed to Covey, but originally comes from Eisenhower. Regardless, I’m hoping that you can answer a couple of question for me that will help me put this into practice.

    First, what always seems to be missing from the matrix and examples is every day work–actually getting stuff done. Let’s assume that you haven’t procrastinated so you have enough time to work on a project (it’s not urgent). The matrix says that planning work for the project would be a Quadrant II activity. Okay, now you have time to do the project and you have planned the project, but I’ve never seen a list of example activities for each quadrant that includes “doing.” I assume that doing the real work is a Quadrant II activity, but why is that always left off the lists?

    Second, the matrix also seems to be really vague about where relaxation fits in. It’s rarely urgent, and can often be seen as not important. Sometimes the examples given for Quadrant IV reflect some types of relaxation, which gives the impression that relaxing is wasting time. If you say that relaxation is a necessary component of good health then it can be included in Quadrant II, but this matrix just seems to mostly ignore the value of resting from your labors.

    Thank you for any insights in these areas.

    • Thanks for your comment Steve. Your questions are absolutely valid. Even though the time management matrix can be quite helpful at times, it definitely has its limitations. For this reason, I consider it as one time management tool that should be applied in combination with others.

      As I understand the list, activities that are evaluated to be the most important are addressed first. Then other activities can follow. So in this sense, this is the doing aspect of the matrix.

      Your second question shows that the matrix is not always that applicable to real life. It might be a good idea to have two matrixes – one for your professional and the other for your private life.

      • Hello…great thread! I love all the covey readings! I have been having the same debate with myself on where to put ‘regular’ work. i have implemented 2 matrices – one for work, one for outside of work. but i still have the same question for both matrices…where does regular work belong? for instance, i planned out a renovation on my house and am executing it solo after hours and on weekends. so the tasks involved with this fall where? nothing is a crisis (I), but it is deadline driven(I), but at the same time if i execute along the boundaries set up in my planning stage (II), it is just work….not planning (II) and not a crisis (I) …and certainly not trivia or busy work (IV). I run into the same problem with my work matrix. what quadrant do the execution tasks fall?

        Thanks, any examples would be great. for instance i sepnd 2 hours planning a small project (II). 20 tasks come out of the planning stage. Now the bulk of my time is spent, say 200 hours, executing the tasks to achieve the goal set forth. where do the 200 hours fall?

        Again, many thanks & looking forward to your input!


        • Hello Joe,

          Your example clearly highlights the boundaries of the described time management model, in your case applicability in one’s personal life. Naturally, we always have to keep in mind that the matrix was specifically designed to be applied in a work environment. In your case, I would categorize the renovation works in section 1 because it is of importance to you and comes with a deadline. Alternatively, one could also argue that renovating your house is of less importance than for instance having food and water available. For this reason, one could also categorize it into the third sector, depending on your preferences.

          The two hours of planning fall into sector two and the 200 hours into sector one, at least in my opinion.

      • Hi Steve, I’m doing the research for time management. One of the theory of time management is about Covey’s Time Management Grid.
        I try to search the limitations of the theory, but unfortunately I couldn’t found its.
        Do you mind to tell me where can I get the relevant information?
        Same for Pickle Jar Theory & Parkinson’s Law.

        • So far, I am not aware of an elaborate criticism of the matrix and its limitations. I’m very sorry. However, if you have a quick look at the other comments, you will quickly see the most common limitations often the model.

    • Hi Steve—I believe the attribution to Eisenhower is an error. In the early 2000s, authors (who I suspect didn’t want to credit Covey) began to tie the urgent-v-important matrix concept to an unrelated quote from Eisenhower. I am not aware of any scholarship that links the matrix itself to Eisenhower or that suggests that he used such a tool. Covey may be the originator or may have simply popularized it, but I don’t think there is any actual evidence that Ike was its creator or inspiration.

  4. I am weak in vocabularies. can you please explain it with very simple vocabularies and simple sentence structure. I will be very thankful to you for this act of kindness.

  5. Amanda Thompson on

    Your article was very helpful. Years ago, I took a the Stephen Covey 7 Habits course through an employer and learned about the matrix. I had forgotten many of the details and you summarized them in a really helpful way.

    I am not typical based on the way many people spend their time. I have a big-picture, strategic planning view by nature and enjoy these aspects of work and tend to avoid or procrastinate on the actual “doing”of the work.

    I have had positions where this was very beneficial and where I was able to delegate most of the things I’m not as natural with doing. I notice that if I have several tasks that need to be done, I get distracted easily and have difficulty with concentration. I do have some more recent cognitive impairment associated with chronic Lyme disease what feel like ADD. I’m going to give the matrix a try and hopefully better manage my time and priorities.

  6. I’m in the military and medical field. Everything seems to be in quadrant 1, as their are consequences for things as small as missing a phone call or not reading an email or not getting that patient’s blood drawn fast enough. Or maybe I’m just too sensitive to being “In trouble.”

  7. I am very glad after reading such a wonderful article on time management. Please keep posting about the latest update. Keep posting good articles.

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