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0308 PD: Time management: Making the most of a limited resource

Dale M. Johnson and James C. Hanson Published on 04 February 2008

When we talk about economic resources, three types of resources usually come to mind: land, labor and capital. But a fourth resource – time – may be more important than all the others.

A common saying among farmers is, “I already know how to farm better than I am farming right now. I just don’t have the time.” Obviously, farmers understand the economic value of time. To make the best use of our limited time, we should manage it just as effectively as we manage our land, labor or capital.

Time management experts have developed a model called a time management matrix. This model helps us prioritize our activities and use our time more effectively.

Through the model we can evaluate our activities in terms of importance and urgency. Everything we do is either important or not important. Important activities are those that contribute to our mission, objectives and goals. Our activities can also be characterized as urgent or not urgent. Urgent activities are things that demand immediate attention – they put pressure on us for a response right now.

Important activities may be either urgent or not urgent. Urgent activities may be either important or not important. Figure 1* shows a time management matrix illustrating these concepts. Each of our activities can be distinguished as one of four types, represented by the four quadrants of the time management matrix.

Type A activities are both important and urgent. These include deadline-driven tasks and important daily chores. For example, the important activity of harvesting is often pressed to urgency by looming bad weather.

On a dairy farm, milking and feeding the cows is important to maintaining productivity. It is also urgent because we cannot postpone milking and feeding even a few hours. Type A tasks include demanding problems and managing crises such as last-minute repairs, past-due bills and last-minute financing.

Type B activities are important but not urgent. These activities are characterized as preparation, planning, crisis prevention and deadline-avoiding tasks. Examples are timely field operations, financial management, winter repair work, work with consultants, effective marketing, labor management and skill improvement.

Type C activities are not important but urgently press upon us and interrupt our more important activities. These include responding to a salesperson, phone calls, meetings and mail that do not increase our productivity and effectiveness. Some odd jobs around the farm – such as minor repairs and cleanup – may appear urgent, but may be only marginally important.

Type D activities are neither important nor urgent. Busywork, time wasters, junk mail and some phone calls are the type of activities that fall in this quadrant.

Categorizing our activities in these quadrants reminds us what is important and helps us avoid unimportant endeavors. It also helps us prioritize important activities. Five practical observations can be made about these concepts:

1. Type A and B activities may be equally important. Some type B activities may even be more important than type A activities; they just may not be urgent.

2. Type A activities (important and urgent) almost always come first.

3. Spending most of our time on type A activities causes stress and burnout. It leads to crisis management and “putting out fires.”

4. Focusing on type B activities (important and not urgent) can reduce the number of type A activities in the long run.

5. The way to make time to focus on type B activities is to avoid all unimportant activities (type C and D).

Time management practices
The concepts illustrated by the time management matrix can be practically applied using to-do lists. A to-do list is a simple method of keeping track of tasks that need to be done, but it is more than simply scribbling a list on a scrap of paper. It is a concerted effort to prioritize and complete tasks in an organized way, day in and day out.

Making a to-do list
Review your objectives, strategic and tactical plans. Review yesterday’s list for unfinished tasks. Look forward to upcoming events and deadlines. Brainstorm everything that comes to mind that needs to be done today and record it on the activity or task column. Rank each item according to importance and urgency in first column:

A. important/urgent

B. important/not urgent

C. not important/urgent

D. not important/not urgent

Prioritizing the to-do list
Prioritize the events for the day in numerical order in the second column. Type A tasks nearly always come first, then type B activities. Type C tasks should be avoided because they are not important, but they sometimes must be done because of their urgency. Type D activities should be avoided nearly all the time and should be crossed off the list.

Act on priorities
Complete the tasks as you have prioritized them. Try to stay with one task until it is done. Each day, try to work down the priority list to accomplish at least some type B activities; doing this will avoid crisis management in the future. Do not procrastinate, stay disciplined and avoid type C and type D activities. Work smarter, not harder.

Throughout the day, check off activities as they are completed. Put an arrow beside activities to be moved to another day. Make notes on the back of your list of thoughts, ideas and conversations with people that you want to remember. Record the names of people you delegate tasks to, and list tasks and activities on future to-do lists. Keep your list with you all the time. Keep old to-do lists in chronological order for reference (recipe file boxes work well).  PD

*Figures and references omitted but are available upon request at

—Excerpts from Mid-Atlantic Region Small Farm Success Project website

Dale M. Johnson, Regional Extension Farm Management Specialist, Western Maryland Research and Education Center; and James C. Hanson, Extension Farm Management Specialist, Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of Maryland

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