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Prioritizing Purchasing: Putting First Things First


Lisa M. Ellram, Ph.D., C.P.M., CPA
Lisa M. Ellram, Ph.D., C.P.M., CPA, Assistant Professor, Arizona State University College of Business, PO Box 874706, Tempe, AZ 85287, 602/893-2565
Laura Birou, Ph.D.
Laura Birou, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, George Washington University, School of Business and Public Management, Ste. 403, Monroe Hall, Washington D.C. 20052, 202/994-5609

81st Annual International Conference Proceedings - 1996 - Chicago, IL

There is more to life than increasing its speed. - Mahatma Ghandi

We are all given 168 hour per week. Why is it that some people seem to use those 168 hours more effectively, more efficiently and in a way that leaves them with more personal happiness and satisfaction? What do these people know that many of us do not know?

In order to better manage your time, a number of steps are required. First, you must know how you are currently spending your time. Second, it is critical to believe that you have the power to take control of your time. Third, it is important that you have inspiring goals and ideals that you would prefer to focus on. Finally, you must make a plan for using your time and realistically stay with it. This does not mean you make a plan and rigidly stick with it. It does mean that you make a conscious decision when you do have unexpected opportunity or problem, to focus on the new issue. It means that you consciously decide that whatever you are focusing on is the most important thing that you can do with your time right now.

Current Time Usage.
How are you spending your time right now? This part of improving your time usage can be extremely painful/embarrassing for some people. However, if you do not know how you are currently spending your time, it is tough to improve. The only way to do this is by using a time log. Since many of us work irregular hours, or more than a 40 hour week, the time log should cover 24 hours a day. This will allow you to see how your personal and professional life are related, and how much time you are really devoting to each aspect.

We recommend that you track your time for at least one week in 15 minute intervals. If you have a very irregular/sporadic schedule, you should track your activities for two or more weeks. When you have the information on how you spend your time complied, break it down into six categories:

  • Personal Growth/Development: activities aimed at improving self physically/mentally-exercise, taking classes, learning
  • .
  • Spiritual Growth/Development: activities aimed specifically at religious beliefs, understanding self, spiritual growth.
  • Time spent with family/friends in leisure: dinners, talking, recreation, correspondence.
  • Time spent on job: all productive and non-productive work related activities, including travel time unless you use it otherwise.
  • Physical needs: sleeping, eating, personal hygiene.
  • All other: T.V., reading for entertainment, leisure, etc.

A good way to get perspective on your current time usage is to total up the number of hours spent in each category. Does the time you are spending reflect how important each category is to you in your life? Granted, there may be a minimum amount of time you must spend at work (maybe 40 hours), and on meeting physical needs (maybe 60 hours). That leaves you with 68 glorious hours, right? If not-why not? Are you really doing what you want with your time, or do you feel it is beyond your control? You may just look at this like an interesting exercise, and think "so what?" However, if you don't like your current allocation of time, now is the time to do something about it! Take Control of Your Time. Time is the stuff life is made of. - Benjamin Franklin

Do you believe that you have control over the way that you spend your time? Can you see how decisions that you make determine how you will spend today, tomorrow and next week? If you don't see that you can at least influence the use of your time, there is no point in reading any further. You are a helpless victim of your environment; we hope you have a benevolent dictator. If you do see how you play a role, read on for tips to take control of your time.

Time Management Matrix.
Figure 1 shows a suggested way to consider how your time is currently being spent, and even how you would prefer to spend your time. Note that there are four quadrants, with the horizontal axis representing the "importance" of a given activity to achieving your objectives and the vertical axis representing the "urgency" of the activity in question. "Urgency" here means that the time is occurring now. This model is adapted from First Things First (Covey, et. al., 1993). Notice that each quadrant contains a number of activities.

Quadrant I is a place very familiar to most people in supply management roles. Do it now, deal with this crisis, then next crisis, and next thing you know, the day is over! Quadrant I activities are both urgent (must be done now) and important (must be done to support your objectives). They are often confused with Quadrant III activities, which represent things that are urgent, but not important to you in achieving objectives. Interruptions are urgent by nature: they are happening now. But how many are important? How many are really time wasters? Be sure to carefully distinguish between your own Quadrant I and Quadrant III activities, and do not mistakenly classify unimportant things as important.

Quadrant IV represents true, clearly distinguishable "time wasters." These are things that are neither urgent or important. On the job, this is activity such as busy work, reading junk mail and some phone calls. This is the sort of activity we gravitate towards when we are mentally and/or physically drained, bored, or trying to avoid real work.

Quadrant II is an often neglected, yet very powerful quadrant. This is the "investment" quadrant, where we choose to undertake activities that are important (make a difference in supporting our objectives) but not urgent (no pressing deadline). On the job, this includes taking a proactive role to improving systems, preventing problems, establishing strategy and planning. These activities are "investments," because they have a future pay-off in reducing the level or Quadrant I activities (crises). Yet they require a focus and leap of faith, in setting the time aside to perform such activities NOW.

Before you say you have no time, go back to your time log. Begin with just your work activities, and classify them into each of the quadrants. Be honest with yourself, particularly in distinguishing between Quadrant I and Quadrant III activities. Determine how you could free up time in Quadrants III and IV to refocus on Quadrant II. We recommend doing this in all areas of your life, rebalancing your time as you are able. This is discussed in greater depth in the workshop, and the First Things First book.

Freeing up time at work.

People often complain about lack of time when lack of direction is the real problem. - Zig Zigler

At this point, you should have classified your work related activities among Quadrants I, II, III and IV. How much time do you spend in each? Most people spend the vast majority of their time in Quadrants I and III, dealing with "urgent" situations. We want to free up time from III and IV (both unimportant) to use in II, (important and not urgent), to help reduce Quadrant I, (important and urgent). This is a positive self-reinforcing system.

In freeing up time, start first with your interruptions. Do you answer the phone immediately when it rings? Unless you are a secretary or receptionist, this may be a source of interruption that is draining your time, and is not productive. Try one or more of the following:

  • Use e-mail with very specific questions/responses rather than phone calls
  • Use a fax machine with very specific questions/responses
  • Set up certain times of the day as your productive "working times" where you don't take calls for example, no calls from 10:30-12:00, and 2:00-3:30.
  • Return calls that you can "take care of" with a message after hours either early, late, or normal lunch time.
  • Leave very specific messages, saying it is fine to leave a message with the response.
  • Stick with the system you set up; do not allow exceptions without really thinking through the implications.

If, like many people, you are in a cubicle, you may be interrupted often as people "stop by" to chat. There are a number of ways to handle this; you will have to choose the ones that you are comfortable with.

  • Schedule yourself to work in a conference room when you have a "crunch" project.
  • Schedule a few hours in a conference room every week to have some uninterrupted, productive time.
  • Set up "office hours" times when you are available to take phone calls, drop-ins, meetings, etc.
  • Don't look up from your work when you are interrupted; just continue what you are doing.
  • When interrupted, ask the person to schedule an appointment later.
  • When interrupted, look at your watch and say "I have five minutes," and stick to it tell them when their five minutes are up; leave or go back to work.
  • When interrupted, stand up and say, "I was just leaving."
  • Remove all of the extra chairs from your office.

Be reasonable; do what you're comfortable with. It is important to distinguish between "wasting time" and relationship building, you don't want to destroy relationships.

These are just a couple of examples. More will be shared in the workshop. The key is that once you free up the time, you should refocus it to meet your goals, not find a new way to waste time!

Inspiring Goals.
Life is what happens while you're making other plans. - John Lennon

Now that you have freed up time from Quadrants III and IV to focus on Quadrant II, what are you going to do? One of the activities within Quadrant II involves taking the time to determine what you want to do. In the work setting, you must be aware of corporate strategy and direction, so the activities you pursue support the greater company objectives. For example, if improved supplier relations is a goal, a reduced supplier base is one part of that. As a starting point, you could focus on developing a system to help identify those suppliers you wish to retain.

If you free up time in your personal life, you should likewise consciously choose how to use it. Should more time be spent with friends and family, more on spiritual growth, more on working out? If you do not consciously decide, the time will likely be frittered away on excessive television, shopping, vegging-out. Because choosing your focus is so critical, the reader is referred to the references following this paper to help get more focus on establishing your personal mission, values and goals.

Stick with the Program. When it comes to really refocusing your energy and time, it is critical that you have identified goals, plans and projects that inspire you. In establishing your plans and priorities, Covey recommends planning in "weekly" periods. A month is too long to focus. A day is so short that planning tends to focus on "urgent" issues. A week is long enough to provide for perspective and adaptability to changing conditions.

Concluding Thoughts.
Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least. - Goethe

As you continue on the path of life, it is easy to lose perspective, and get caught up in the day-to-drama of fire fighting. Revisit your priorities weekly at a minimum. If you find yourself "straying" from what is important, don't beat yourself up. Just refocus, and get back to doing what is important to you. Give yourself the gift of time to do what you value - to have fun and enjoy life.


Covey, Stephen R. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, New York: Simon and Schuster 1987.

__________, Principle Centered Leadership, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989.

Covey, Stephen R., A. Roger Merrill and Rebecca R. Merrill, First Things First, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994.

Everett, Melissa, Making a Living While Making a Difference, New York: Bantam, 1995.

Morris, Tom, True Success; New York: Grosset/Putnam, 1994.

Senge, Peter, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, New York: Doubleday, 1992.

Figure 1

    Quadrant I
  • Urgent / Important
  • Crises
  • Pressing problems
  • Deadline-driven projects, assignments, meetings, preparations (as deadline approaches)
  • Materials shortages quality, problems
  • Missed deadlines on construction
  • Attending conference
  • Looking for lost papers
  • Quadrant II

  • Not Urgent / Important
  • Preparation
  • Prevention
  • Mission and values clarification
  • Planning
  • Relationship building
  • Careful supplier selection and evaluation
  • Systems contracts, integrated supply
  • Purchasing card
  • Outsourcing
  • Continuing education
  • Attending seminar
  • Setting strategy
  • Quadrant III

  • Urgent / Not Important
  • Routine "ASAP" orders
  • Interruptions, some phone calls
  • Some mail, some reports
  • Some meetings
  • Many proximate, pressing matters
  • Many popular activities
  • Quadrant IV

  • Not Urgent
  • Trivia, busywork
  • Junk mail, catalogues
  • Some phone calls
  • Time wasters
  • "Escape" activities (television, gossip, extended coffee breaks)
  • Excessive "net" surfing

Adapted from Steven Covey, First Things First, 1993.

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