It’s right to be critical of the self-help books that fill the shelves of so many bookshops these days.

My recent blog ‘Simply Selfish?’ recognised that self-help often encourages selfishness. Much self-help literature also makes the assumption that you and I have the potential to achieve anything. So we’re told: ‘Work efficiently, do the right things, believe in yourself and you will be successful’. But that’s not true! We humans are finite, fallible and frail. We get things wrong. There are many outside forces at work which we cannot control. We simply can’t achieve anything and everything we want.

And yet, self-help is not all wrong. Like other religions (which is what self-help really is – it’s a world-view, a philosophy, a way of thinking and being and living) it is partly right. It contains elements of truth. So I’ve found some of the most helpful and practical insights on time management to be found in self-help books – especially where the worlds of business and self-help intersect. One of the most influential books in this field is Stephen R Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Here’s what Wikipedia currently says about the book.

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, first published in 1989, is a business and self-help book written by Stephen R. Covey. It has sold more than 25 million copies in 38 languages worldwide, and the audio version has sold 15 million copies, and remains one of the best selling nonfiction business books. Covey presents an approach to being effective in attaining goals by aligning oneself to what he calls “true north” principles of a character ethic that he presents as universal and timeless. In August 2011, Time listed Seven Habits as one of “The 25 Most Influential Business Management Books”.’

So why is a book like Seven Habits so helpful? Partly it’s because of the values that undergird it, but more specifically it’s because of some of the practical insights shared. One of the most helpful of these is what’s become known as The Time Management Matrix which helps you think about priorities in order to help you be effective. It looks like this.

If you’ve never come across this before, I thoroughly recommend that you use it to help you review your use of time. I still use it from time to time when things are getting too busy. It’s a simple and useful tool.

Elsewhere Covey talks of four generations of Time Management. The First Generation basically made lists. Maybe you do that. Making lists is good. You can see what needs to be done. But the Second Generation went further. They used calendars and diaries to help schedule these activities and events. The Third Generation went further still, working out values and priorities. This helped decide which of the things on the ‘To Do’ list were most important and needed doing first, and which could wait. Covey thinks we’re now in the Fourth Generation where we’ve moved beyond Time Management to Life Leadership. This is about learning to live primarily in Quadrant 2 of The Time Management Matrix, where ideally we spend most of our time doing things that are important but not especially urgent.

Why is Quadrant 2 the place of greatest effectiveness? The answer is that investing in things that are important but not urgent tends to produce the greatest long-term benefits. So, for the follower of Jesus, such things will include: regular reading of the bible, praying and worshipping, spending time with people, taking exercise, sleeping well, planning well for the future. When life is crazy, most of these things in Quadrant 2 can wait another day, but if we keep putting them off, life will suffer. That’s why we need to be disciplined and pray for the Spirit’s help to be doing these basic things well (2 Timothy 1:7). Keep doing these things and over time you will grow, develop and mature (Romans 5:4). Following Jesus is a decision for life. You’re in this for the long-haul. So make sure you’re spending your time well.

If you want to do a decent assessment of your use of time, why not go through your diary from last week and look at each day for seven days? Use The Time Management Matrix to help you work out what percentage of your week was spent in Quadrants 1, 2, 3 and 4. Of course you can’t spend the whole time in Quadrant 2 (‘Important but not Urgent’). Almost undoubtedly you’ll have done some ‘Important and Urgent things’ (Quadrant 1) and a few ‘Not Important but Urgent’ matters (Quadrant 3). But the area to watch is Quadrant 4 (‘Not Urgent and Not Important’). Given that life is short (Ps 90:10,12) you want to avoid these trivial, time-wasting things – unless of course they’re a deliberate part of resting.

If all this sounds rather like management speak, don’t worry. Have another look. It’s actually very simple. It’s about using your time better. The aim is not to help you cram more into your already-busy life. If you think that’s what Time Management for the disciple of Jesus is all about, then you’ve missed the point. It’s about making time for the important things.

Covey and others have done a service to those of us who believe that how we spend our time is really important. So slow down. Take stock. Pray. And use tools like The Time Management Matrix to help you use your time even more effectively. After all, the bible says you need to ‘be very careful how you live – not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity’ (Ephesians 5:15-16). For many of us, now is the time for Time Management.