Day 23: Staying in the Sweet Spot of “Important but Not Urgent”

A long time ago, I read a book by Stephen Covey called “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” In it, he suggested that the things we humans spend our time on fall into four categories, like this:

TYPES OF ACTIVITIES HUMAN BEINGS ENGAGE IN:

  • Important
  • NOT Important
  • Urgent
  • NOT Urgent

In other words, we spend our time on things that are either important or not, and urgent or not. Some things are not important but urgent, such as taking a random call or answering the door bell, which interrupt you from what you are doing. Other things are not important AND not urgent, such as binge-watching a Netflix show (Sorry: I know that R&R has a place in our lives, but I’d guess Covey is ruling out excessive TV-watching as an important activity. Also, since it’s always available on Netflix, it isn’t actually urgent).

Humans tend to spend much of their time doing the urgent and important stuff. For instance, gotta pay the rent/mortgage! Gotta feed the kids! Gotta pay the taxes! These are important things that basically scream at us if we don’t do them.

If we neglect these areas, things get ugly quick. They become like fires that must be put out!

The problem is that many people spend all of their time trying to handle these urgent, important things. Like firefighters in the danger zone, they are constantly trying to keep civilization from burning down!

Whereas, the sweet spot of effectiveness, Covey argues, is found in that often-neglected area called important but not urgent. Covey is big into work-place effectiveness, but for my money, this area includes things like getting a higher education, being physically active, and saving for the future. I think most people would agree these are important things. However, it is possible to put these things off, since after all the kids, the taxman, the boss or our spouse usually aren’t screaming at us if we don’t handle these “lofty” goals.*

Covey has a neat little box he calls “the Time Management Matrix,” which neatly explains the “four quadrants” of human activity (I have adapted this a little based on my own understanding of these concepts):

UrgentNot Urgent
ImportantQuadrant #1: The Daily MUSTS. The stuff we have to do OR ELSE. Paying taxes, showing up to work, taking care of our children/pets, gas in the car, etc. High priority here-and-now activities, as well as “fires” that need to be put out!Quadrant #2: Investments in Ourselves. Planning, developing relationships, education, saving/investing, self-improvement, exercise
Not ImportantQuadrant #3: Interruptions. Telephone calls, spam, emails, door bells, unimportant questions from others… things that interrupt us and are hard to ignore, but not essential.Quadrant #4: Time Wasters. TV watching, excessively hanging out on social media, trivia, pleasant but valueless activities

I have always aspired to be really good at Quadrant #2. As it turns out, I’m probably best in the well-being and personal development department.

Here are some Quadrant #2 (ie highly important but not urgent) activities that I excel at:

  • reading/learning
  • writing
  • running
  • investing/saving
  • planning
  • composing/songwriting
  • personal development in the form of workshops, courses, mentors, books, and recordings

Incidentally, these are the topics I primarily focus on here on this blog 🙂

I certainly still have a lot I could learn about being effective. Yet it is pleasing that some of the activities I treasure most fall into the “important but not urgent” category Covey recommends.

It’s how I would have wanted it when I first read his book long ago!

*When people tell you to “face reality” or “come back to earth,” could they be telling you to get out of Quadrant #2 with all its pie-in-the-sky possibility and focus on the Quadrant #1 problems of the HERE AND NOW? Makes sense to me.

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