How to Effectively Manage Your Time

I’ve been reading leadership/management/organizational literature more recently because of a leadership symposium I attended this summer and also in preparation for the Library Journal/Temple symposium coming up in a few weeks. Anyone who knows me or reads this blog knows that I enjoy thinking about self-improvement and improving your character. The last article I co-wrote was about the 13 virtues of the Next-Gen librarian (modeled after the virtues in Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography).

One book I’ve begun reading is Stephen Covey’s classic The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I originally picked it up because I remembered (and highly agree with) habit 5 “Seek first to understand, then be understood.” I think this one is key to getting along with colleagues, managers, doing reference, etc.

But now that I am actually reading the book, what I have been thinking a lot about is the third habit: “Put first things first.” Most librarians I talk to are generally very busy people. We have a lot of ideas, initiatives, and commitments. I know I wish that I had more time, and I really want to work on managing my time better. Covey puts forth a simple framework for thinking about time and projects that was really illuminating for me. He breaks activities down into a matrix of urgent/not urgent and important/not-important:

Covey says that the most impact comes when you focus on Quadrant II (important and not-urgent). These are things that you know are important and you know that they would make a big difference, but you “just don’t have the time.” In reality this is the work we should be focusing on and it would do the most to improve our work and our libraries. Clearly working on things like long-term planning, redesigning the website, or figuring out a coherent approach to ebooks, would be much more beneficial than, say cleaning up email or another meeting.

Of course meetings and email are necessary, but it’s easy to get caught up thinking that you have to go to every meeting or that all the emails in your inbox demand your attention. By carving out time specifically for Quadrant II tasks, those important things that keep getting kicked down the road actually start coming to fruition. This type of work is also much more fulfilling. It feels great to finish that article you keep putting off or finally get that annual report done.

Time management is something that I know I need work on and this framework is really helpful to me. Do other people find this helpful or have other useful ways of thinking about managing their time?

Andy Burkhardt


  1. Great post Andy, thanks! It’s so true that tasks from the II category produce the biggest impact yet are hardest to ‘justify’ doing at any given time.

    My major time-management improvement this year is loosely inspired by another classic – Getting Things Done. The whole system is too complex for me, at least without taking up more time than it saves. But the structured to-do list piece has been a lifesaver.

    My structured to-do list sorts tasks into categories: Routine (checking ILL, PC maintenance); Incoming (lit search requests, reference questions requiring follow-up); Scheduled (upcoming classes to teach/plan for); and Long-Term (basically the II category you have – planning, relationship-building).

    The key benefit for me is that I can structure my day more effectively when everything is available at a glance, but sorted roughly by urgency and amount of time required to complete the task.

  2. Sarah, do you make that structured to-do list daily or weekly or some other way? Then do you try to do some from each category every day? It seems like that could be a really useful system. Thanks for the recommendation on GTD. I’ve heard about and seen it mentioned a lot over the years, but never looked further into it. I’ll have to take a look look at his book or at least some of the articles on his site. It really helps seeing how others organize their day and structure their time.

  3. I’m glad that it seems useful! I must confess to having never read GTD in full…even skimming it gave the impression of a fairly involved system. But it really does seem to work for some people…check any productivity site and you’ll find the GTD-enthusiasts. 🙂

    I use a legal pad for the list, so it’s all on one page. Usually I have one list per week and I recopy the un-done or long-term and unfinished items from one week to the next. While it seemed like wasted time at first, now I find it helpful to have a designated time to review my priorities and tasks.

    Even with a designated ‘long-term’/II category, I still get bogged down in the ‘incoming’ category. I make an effort to work on at least 1 thing in the long-term category each day, and to prioritize those tasks whenever the ‘incoming’ category isn’t overflowing.

    Have you been trying the quadrant method? If so, has it helped?

  4. Yeah, it seems very easy to get bogged down and caught up in the day to day stuff that simply needs to get done. I agree with you that it is helpful to take a step back to review priorities and look more at the larger picture.

    I have definitely been talking and thinking a great deal about quadrant 2 and how I can do more of that. I just read about it last week, but this sort of thinking seems to be helpful so far in clarifying activities (and eventually prioritizing them).

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