Reclaim the Steering Wheel: 6 Practical, Powerful Tools of a Comprehensive Time Management System (Part 1 of 2)


Our time is our life. How we manage it is no more and no less than how well we live.

Many of us have fantasized about a remote control which fast forwards or pauses to suit our joyful and undesirable moments. Of course, no such remote control exists.

We can only learn to work with the time we do have better. We can increasingly take advantage of it and live fuller lives where we move ever towards our better self and the dreams we wish to realize. Time management is about having both feet firmly planted on the ground so that we can live our aspirations. It's the very practical element of contributing the best of ourselves to the world.

With all the rush of modern society, we sometimes don't even notice how our time no longer seems like our own. It seems like we are trying to live up to and cope with an ever-growing set of demands on our time. The potential danger is that we get stuck in a reactive mode where our own priorities seem like a distant luxury instead of a necessity and a right. This article is an attempt to help you change that.

Making a fundamental change in how one relates to time becomes absolutely crucial in stepping out of the passenger side and reclaiming the steering wheel. It's of course up to each of us to choose to do this.

I've engaged with this theme myself, with a lot of research and practice in my own life. I am still working to implement these tools consistently. In fact, everything I write is something I am learning myself. But I have made a lot of progress, and after a recent session where I shared this knowledge spontaneously with a client, I realized how helpful it could be for others.

Here are 6 powerful tools which can help you reclaim the steering wheel. My consistent reminder is that any #truechange practice requires patience, effort, and commitment. Let's first bring our attention to a couple more reminders before looking closely at the 6 tools.

Inner Challenges

Time is of course where procrastination and resistance have a chance to sabotage our best intentions. We also may have beliefs about who we should be when others ask favors of us, that touch on guilt and tendencies towards people-pleasing inside of us. Another potential challenge is that we get overwhelmed by choice and possibility when we acknowledge our time is actually our own. As we become more aware of these patterns, true change entails repeatedly observing these parts of ourselves and the parts of us that may want to get frustrated that we're not already "further ahead".

Realizing True Change

Our greatest chances for success are to take this on methodically, step-by-step, and with both firmness and gentleness towards ourselves. There is no outer change without observing and gradually adjusting inner attitudes. My guess is no matter where you are relative to time management, you have a chance to learn something new through these tools. The invitation is to experiment with what works well for you. I have no doubt you will be successful in reclaiming the steering wheel if you want to.

As this is a longer entry, I will present tools 1, 2, and 3 in Part 1 and the rest will follow in Part 2 tomorrow.


Tool #1: Recognizing and Hacking the 80/20 Rule in Time Management

Vilfredo Pareto was an Italian economist who recognized that “the vital few” of the peapods in his garden gave him the majority of his peas. “The Pareto principle states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.” (Wikipedia) A couple of simple examples are that 20% of your clients give you 80% of your sales, or 20% of society has 80% of the wealth. This principle has been found to roughly apply across a staggering array of situations, both in human endeavor and naturally occurring phenomena. Being aware of this happens to have great implications for our lives time management and beyond.

For now, time management is our focus. Let's keep it simple. If we apply this principle, we realize that 20% of our tasks are responsible for 80% of our desirable outcomes. And then, logically, 80% of our time is being used to realize 20% of our desirable outcomes.

So recognizing 80/20 to time management can help us to be strategic and deliberate in how we divide our time and maximize our productivity. It reveals the insight that most of us are probably spending the majority of our time on the most annoying, administrative, routine, reactive tasks. Instead, we can choose to bring more focus and prioritize daily those tasks that are the most productive, constructive, and satisfying.

The most obvious growth opportunity here: setting a goal to intentionally shift to spending 50% of our time on the stuff that matters most.

(A bonus oldie but goodie which applies here and may be supportive is the story of the rocks, pebbles, and sand.)

Taking action on these insights from the 80/20 rule can be easier said than done, however. This is where the 2nd tool can support us.


Tool #2: Getting clear on the 4 quadrants

Let's continue with a classic, powerful tool the 4 quadrants of time, a 2 by 2 matrix created by Steven Covey. It helps us recognize the quality of how we spend our time across two pivotal dimensions--important/not important and urgent/not urgent.

Importance: takes us closer to our aspirations and fulfillment.
Urgency: how pressing of an issue the activity/task is, which in of itself may or may not connect to our fulfillment.

Many people know of it but many others haven't heard of it. I would like to share the basics as well as offer additional interpretation.

Credit to

Credit to


Quadrant 1:

2 X 2: Important and Urgent.
Covey's Name/ Key Quality: Quadrant of Necessity.
Examples of activities: include emergencies, crises, deadline driven projects, a friend in need.
Results: If we spend too much time in quadrant 1, we can become stressed and burnt out.
Notes: A certain amount of quadrant 1 activity is inevitable. The opportunity is to manage this as well as possible. For some of us, it may seem we are constantly putting out fires. Fire-fighting implies dealing with issues only as they arise. It means we stay on on the surface rather than penetrating into deeper understanding of causes. So fires keep arising and we stay beholden to them rather than “getting out in front” of them, so those symptoms don't keep appearing over and over.

Quadrant 2:

2 X 2: Important and Not Urgent.
Covey's Name/ Key Quality: Quadrant of Quality and Personal Leadership.
Examples of activities: include relationship building, strategic planning, directed study, daily exercise, habit-building, long-term goals, preventative action, self-development work.
Results: As we orient to spending more time in quadrant 2, we gain a greater sense of control of our time and the direction of our lives. We practice discipline, gain balance, express vision and perspective. Also, we tend to gain more power to positively influence and downtrend fire-fighting in quadrant 1.
Notes: The key insight in this matrix is that quadrant 2 is where our long-term satisfaction and continued growth in overall effectiveness lies. People who spend a greater percentage of their time here tend to be effective and fulfilled people. They are focused on opportunities rather than problems.

These are the tasks and activities we often overlook because they are not urgent. We also do not receive any short-term gratification here. These tasks play out over the longer-term.

When we bring our just our simple attention to quadrant 2, our life expands. This is even more the case when we match attention with our vision, courage, and discipline. In quadrant 2, we are not just doing, but we have the chance to observe, analyze, and strategize what, how, and why we are doing so that we can continuously adjust and improve.

Our goal can be learn to delegate, say no, and adjust until we are spending 50% of our time minimum in quadrant 2. Quadrant 2 comes with greater satisfaction, greater freedom, greater control, and also greater responsibility. Some people want that and accept that responsibility is the price to be paid, and other's don't.

Quadrant 3:

2 X 2: Not Important and Urgent.
Covey's Name/ Key Quality: Quadrant of Deception.
Examples of activities: include some types of email, calls, and meetings; some types of pressing matters that just land in the inbox or on the desk; interruptions.
Results: We may feel busy, but we don't feel like we accomplished much of our own agenda. We are beholden to the needs and requests of others.
Notes: Quadrant 3 is where we are most likely to feel out of control with our time, or even victimized by bosses, partners, or friends. When this is the case, we need to examine our own people-pleasing tendencies and bring more “spinefulness” to our interactions. Our relationships may become increasingly strained, shallow, or broken if we spend too much time here. We also may feel out of touch with ourselves and increasingly resentful.  Too much time in Quadrant 3 can be connected to low self-worth. 

Quadrant 4:

2 X 2: Not Important and Not Urgent.
Covey's Name/ Key Quality: Quadrant of Waste.
Examples of activities: include time wasters, surfing the internet, blankly scrolling social media, mindlessly watching television, some types of calls and emails, and other “escape” activities. Results: The more time we spend in quadrant 4, the more irresponsible we are for our lives. We may be dependent on others even for bare basics.
Notes: Quadrant 4 is also an escape safety valve when much of our time is spent in quadrants 1 and 3. When we don't have the fulfillment which comes from quadrant 2, we use the fleeting pleasures and numbness which comes from quadrant 4 to “unwind”.

Note about organizations: If we work at organizations stuck in execution mode, lack of quadrant 2 focus can pervade the culture. Many of us are familiar with these types of environments. It means more stress, less satisfaction, and less awareness of how the organization will continue to evolve and perform at ever higher levels. It's something that can be changed, if the leadership sees the shortcomings of the current set of circumstances.

Questions for reflection: The available step from tools 1 and 2 then is to take a good close look at how we spend our time. Are we constantly putting out fires? Are we on Facebook all the time? Are we on the verge of burnout? What long-term goals are we not making time for? How might this awareness help you to take positive steps with your time?  I invite your comments.


Tool #3: The Einstein Window/ Natural Rhythms

Each of us has a time where we feel sharpest, alert, most connected to ourselves, creative, and energized. In short, it's where our own inner genius, our own brand of Einstein, shines. Let's make sure we are intentional and deliberate about getting the most juice we can out of that fruit.

It's different times for different people, and the length of the window may vary.

With me, for example, it's roughly 7 am to 11. Other people, including my wife, are sharper in the evening.

The key is to use those precious hours each day to do your highest impact work. Think to yourself: what is the one (or more) things I could do today that would make the biggest difference for others and for myself? That's a quick way to determine what you might focus on in your Einstein window.

By definition activities to focus on will be from quadrant 1 or 2, and preferably over time it's more and more in quadrant 2.

The Einstein window is one obvious way to bring more attention and awareness to our natural rhythms.  When we stay in tune with ourselves and use that self-awareness to our advantage, it's obvious that good things happen.

My possibly naive recommendation is to grow more moderate with caffeine and other stimulants which we use to fight and artificially manipulate these rhythms. Our overall sense of well-being grows when we do so, which I'll examine another day perhaps.

Speaking of another day, tools 4,5, 6 follow tomorrow. Tool 4 is one that ties these first 3 together and is the central pillar of the whole system. That's us building anticipation. See you tomorrow.