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Live your life by a compass not a clock

By Janel Byrne

Monday morning hits – I open my phone and scroll through my calendar, releasing a heavy sigh as everything loads; booked in back to back meetings again. It doesn’t come as a surprise, as I have taken on more responsibilities in my leadership role. Even still, it can be discouraging to start my week knowing I will struggle to find the time to restore my personal comfort (i.e., my way of saying I need to use the restroom), let alone make any progress on significant projects for my organization. I have a feeling this experience may resonate with many of you.

Stephen Covey, author of “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” responded to this shared predicament by saying, “we should live our lives based on a compass not a clock.” Covey succinctly articulates how we should structure each day with our goals dictating our actions, not our calendars. Living my life by a compass this week would mean making progress on projects that further the strategic goals for my team and my organization (i.e., this big picture). Living my life by a clock is me in meetings from 9 a.m. till 5:30 p.m., putting out a lot of “fires” – and making zero progress when it comes to furthering big picture objectives.

Fortunately, it’s still Monday morning for me and I’m taking control of my compass to not be obliterated by the clock today. For me, my best brain power is in the morning sipping my coffee, so I must maximize this time with the truly important “stuff.” This is where I tap into a tool called the Eisenhower Matrix. Coined by former President of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Eisenhower Matrix is how he prioritized his vital responsibilities and decision-making by urgency and importance throughout World War II.

With my calendar in front of me I take out a piece of blank paper, draw my matrix and take the next 20 minutes to plot out my day. In the top left quadrant, I identify the meetings/tasks for the day that are urgent and important. For today, this is my 1:1 with my leader to discuss critical feedback from our CEO about a conference we are planning for 500 of our organization’s leaders. The conference is around the corner and its objective is to equip participants to be more effective in their leadership roles (which happens to be a key organization-wide objective).

In the top right quadrant, I list meetings/tasks that are not urgent while still being important. My team is hoping to enhance a website that stores key policies, information and tools for leaders toward the end of this calendar year. This critical resource will additionally further the organization’s objective to equip leaders to be more effective, but it’s not urgent for today. I write a note to schedule time for myself and team to start brainstorming early next week. In the bottom left quadrant, I list meetings/tasks that are not important for me to do but are urgent. These are activities that can be delegated and, for today, includes two meetings about our organizational performance evaluation approach. Filling in this box is one of my greatest achievements as a leader. It can be challenging to truly hand responsibilities over to others and trust them to complete with excellence. As leaders, this quadrant is both an opportunity to add more “compass” time to your day while empowering your team to own, drive, grow and achieve new things. For example, I sent these two meetings to my direct report leading the project with an email saying, “I will not attend either meeting today – I trust your ability to lead this process and keep me in the loop when it comes to critical context. I’m also happy to join if my presence is needed – if so, please let me know the role you would like me to play so these meetings can achieve the desired objective(s).”

In the last quadrant, I list meetings/tasks that are neither urgent nor important. These are the items that I ultimately choose to not waste any brainpower on. For today, I completely remove myself from a standing policy meeting. I no longer have responsibilities in this realm and don’t see myself as a necessary (or valuable) contributor to the discussion. I send an email to the group informing them of my decision and leave it open to any questions or concerns – I’m always happy to hear if I’m missing how my involvement adds value (but am 99% sure I will not be missed!).

For my visual learners, above is one of many graphics of the Eisenhower Matrix and additional resources are readily available online, including at

Twenty minutes later, I have 3 additional hours of my Monday back and am able to maximize my morning brainpower to prepare for my critical meeting with my leader.

The Eisenhower Matrix is just one of many prioritization tools out there. The critical “aha” for me is my ability to take control of my day, week, month and year, especially when it felt like I had no control for so long. Our lives are not moving any slower or becoming less busy, and it’s easy to fall victim to your calendar – to the clock. Your brainpower is vital, especially as you lead others, so do what you need to truly live by your compass.

Janel Byrne, MSW, SHRM-CP, is an organizational effectiveness manager at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.



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