Last week we thought about our Five Life Commandments--a decision framework for making choices. Let’s talk today about why we need a decision framework and add a little bit of context.
Why do you do what you do every day? We do things because we’ve put them on our schedule…we take our kids to school or to piano lessons. We do things because other people ask us to. We do things because we have a deadline. We need to pay the cell phone bill because there’s a due date. Sometimes our motivations for actions aren’t what they seem. We eat because we’re hungry, right? Maybe. But, we also eat because it’s a habit, we’re stressed, we’re bored or we’re being social.
What I haven’t mentioned yet…doing things because they’re important…is often eclipsed by all the other reasons I’ve listed. Urgency. Schedule. Habit. Demands of others. These aren’t necessarily wrong reasons to do things. But, they tend to get out of our control. They’re never-ending. They’re not necessarily going to get us what we want. And, by doing too many of them, they’ll certainly keep us from getting what we want.
Essentially, I’m talking about the difference between urgent and important. Many years ago, Steven Covey popularized a matrix based on Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Decision Principle. It involves sorting tasks into four boxes.
The first box is things that are both important and urgent. These are meaningful things that have a deadline. They may be things like paying your car insurance which is important because of the deadline or things that are important because they need to be dealt with immediately, like a car that won’t start.
The second box is things that are important but not urgent. This would be things that you put on your 5 commandments last week, but don’t have a deadline. Things that will make your life well lived. Things that will help you reach your business or personal goals. Things that are less urgent, so they often get pushed aside.
Box three is things that are urgent, but not important. These might be tasks that other people request of you, but don’t move you toward a goal. They might be emails or phone calls. These are things that make you feel like you’re accomplishing things because you can check them off your list, but they don’t actually add to your life in a meaningful way. We get easily lost in this swamp.
Box four is filled with the unimportant and not urgent. Many of our leisure activities live in this box. Time-wasters like social media and Netflix. Video games. Shopping sprees.
The usefulness of this matrix come in knowing where a particular task falls and where you want to be spending your time.
Here’s how to handle the tasks in each box:
Box 1 (important and urgent): This is the DO box. Get these things done.
Box 2 (important, but not urgent): This is the SCHEDULE box. Schedule time to focus on these in your life. Intentionally create the time to do them. They won’t happen by accident.
Box 3 (not important but urgent): This is the AVOID box. Delegate, ignore, or limit these tasks. They’re typically not as important as they feel like they are.
Box 4 (not important, not urgent): This is the CONTROL box. Use these things to reduce stress, relax, to give yourself a mental break, but use them intentionally and don’t let them use you. We spend far too much of our time here usually.
This matrix can be used to sort tasks so you can decide how to handle any given situation and to be aware of where you’re spending your time. We’ll talk more about time next week, but for now, know that ideally, you want to be spending your time in Box 2, on important things.
This is not a new idea. It’s been popular in productivity circles for a long time. Bailey Cooper writes, “We are, as author Douglas Rushkoff claims, experiencing "present shock" – a condition in which “we live in a continuous, always-on ‘now’” and lose our sense of long-term narrative and direction. In such a state, it is easy to lose sight of the distinction between the truly important and the merely urgent.
The consequences of this priority-blindness are both personal and societal. In our own lives, we suffer from burnout and stagnation, and on a broader level our culture is unable to solve the truly important problems of our time.”
I spoke about a year ago about my best friend living with stage four cancer. The reality of our mortality means something different to her than it does to people not struggling with a terminal illness. Something totally different. Cancer draws a swift division between things that are truly important and things that don’t matter.
I know one of the issues I need to deal with in the coming months is that my schedule is too full and I need to take a hard look at all that I’m doing. In the process of thinking that through, I need to start evaluating which box I’m living in.
I want to spend my life on things that matter. I want to live in box 2.
Meaning should be the motivating factor for our decisions. We established what’s meaningful last week. These are the things that belong in our 2nd box. This is what we want to be spending our time doing. Because they’re not urgent, though, it’s so very easy to put off doing them. And then because, in the words of Annie Lamott, “the way we spend our days is the way we spend our lives.” If we’re living out of the urgent but unimportant box, our life becomes urgent but unimportant. We run and run, but accomplish nothing of value.
Lao Tzu says, “Time is a created thing. To say ‘I don’t have time,’ is like saying, ‘I don’t want to.’”
I got curious where my time was really going this week. Have you heard the saying that the way to figure out what your priorities are is to look at your bank account and your schedule? To take a look at where you’re spending your time and your money? I suspect I waste far more time on social media than I’d like to believe. And I wonder how my actual time spent stacks up against my perception of how I’m spending it.
Well, I’m going to find out. I downloaded a time tracking app and I’m tracking my time. Just like you can track food, you can track where your time goes. I plan to do it for a month or two, but I’ll let you know next week how it looks with a week’s worth of data.
Last week we figured out what was important to us. This week I want you to take a look at the things you’re doing. Are they the things you’ve listed in your commandments? Are they the important, but not urgent things? Make a list of your activities. How many of them align with your commandments? With what you say is important to you?
This is a reality check exercise. Understanding and naming what’s important to us is great, but how does it stack up against how you’re living now? Where we find our gaps between what we say is important and what we’re doing will give us areas we need to focus on changing in the coming months.
Want episodes delivered to your inbox each Monday morning? Click here