The 50/30/15/5 Approach to Managing Your Time

Stephen Covey’s book the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is one of the Top 3 books that changed my vision of life. One of the biggest lessons I learned while reading this book is how to better manage my time, and I thought I’d share some of my learnings in this article.

Note: the strategies I’m presenting here have proven very efficient for me in the past, and keep working consistently as I move forward. However, everyone is different. Most of the advice given in any field of expertise usually needs to be adjusted to each and every one’s personality. Time management can be done in a lot of different ways. Here is how it works for me. Take out what you don’t want, apply what you need. What matters is the results.

The 4 Quadrants

In his book, Stephen Covey presents his famous Four Quadrants, which have literally become a gold standard in hundreds of industries and domains, including self-help/productivity.

  • Quadrant 1 is for the immediate and important deadlines.
  • Quadrant 2 is for long-term strategising and development.
  • Quadrant 3 is for time pressured distractions. Unimportant things that somewhat require my attention (usually because somebody else needs them delivered).
  • Quadrant 4 is for activities that yield little to no value. Not urgent and unimportant things I find myself doing because distractions are always coming my way. Sometimes, I give in.

In theory, this quadrant system is really easy to understand. But in practice, I realised it’s a lot harder to implement in one’s daily life. Let’s pair each quadrant with a verb:

By doing that, we can easily see the order of importance of the quadrants:

  • 2 and 1 are very important
  • 4 comes third
  • 3 should be avoided, it is of very little importance.

Managing your time based on the quadrants

The 50/30/15/5 rule is no rocket science. Every time a new task comes at you, choose in which quadrant it belongs. Based on the order of importance of the quadrants, you can easily deduce how much of your time you should spend on that task, and even if you should postpone it to later.

When using this rule in estimating time allocation, I always look at a weekly timeline. When trying to solve a problem, bigger samples of data give a clearer picture of the possible solutions.

A week is 7 days, 168 hours. It makes it a lot easier to see patterns and blocks of time on a 168-hour timeline than on a 24-hour one. A year is 52 weeks, so it also makes it easier to look at long-term goals this way.

With that in mind, this is how I try to spend my time as much as possible (50%-30%-15%-5%):

  • Quadrant 2, Focus: 50% of my time. This is the most important quadrant. This is where my focus towards my goals is. If I can’t dedicate at least 50% of my time to working towards my goals, I won’t go too far before all the other tasks overflow my schedule. That’s why I make sure this is always the majority stake in my schedule. This includes sleep, because without sleep there is no focus.
  • Quadrant 1, Manage: 30% of my time. This is another important quadrant, where my secondary focus is. These tasks are less enjoyable and less important for my goals, but they’re still part of the journey. They have more to do with long-term planning and keeping the upwards momentum in check.
  • Quadrant 4, Limit: 15% of my time. This is mostly relaxation and small time wasters. It remains a very important quadrant because it allows me to work on my stress levels by relaxing and letting go once in a while (usually on the weekends, like most people).
  • Quadrant 3, Avoid: 5% of my time. For the sake of simplicity and because it sounds better, Quadrant 3 amounts to 5% of my total week time in the example. In reality, it is closer to 3%. I try to minimise my addiction to technology during my free time as much as possible, which still adds up to around 5 hours per week.

In total, I try to spend 80% of my time on the 2 most important quadrants.

Conclusion

The 50/30/15/5 rule works great for me, but you can change the ratios to what suits you best. Ideally though, the Quadrant 2 should always be the most time-consuming one in your schedule, because that is where all your most important goals are.

If you can’t spend the majority of your time working towards your goals, your progress will be too small and your schedule will overflow.

Here is another way to look at my time use over 168 hours. Each square represents an hour.

Finally, here is how that time use translates on a weekly calendar with a typical 9–5 job (small adjustments have been made for the sake of simplicity).

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