|It’s been awhile since I posted anything controversial on this blog. This might make up for that. I suspect to hear some “it’s not that easy” protestations. I’m ready for them — I’ve walked the talk on this.
You’re probably familiar with Covey’s urgent/important quadrants, shown in the graphic at right. Covey’s thesis is that we spend so much time on quadrant 3 matters (urgent but unimportant) that some quadrant 1 matters (urgent and important) may get neglected (since often they’re onerous and time-consuming), and most quadrant 2 matters (important but not urgent) get pushed down the priority list and never get done at all (until/unless they become urgent quadrant 1 matters, which quite often happens too late, like on our deathbeds).
One of the things I’ve done with my GTD list (see model below) to try to address this tendency, is to flag urgent items on my list in italics, and important items in bold (and quadrant 1 items in bold italics), and pledge to do at least one important (quadrant 1 or 2) ‘next action step’ every day.
Dave’s Getting Things Done process and list format
The problem was, despite my best intentions, the urgent stuff kept getting moved up and the important stuff moved down. At the end of every day I was deleting completed tasks in italics, adding new urgent tasks, and, with a sigh, rescheduling tasks in bold to later dates.
Since my stress-induced disease hit me and woke me up, I’m not doing that any more. In fact, I’ve declared war on quadrant 3 (and 4) tasks: They don’t get put on the list at all. Every action on my (much shorter) GTD list is now bold quadrant 1 or 2 tasks. Most of the quadrant 3 tasks, it turned out, fell into one of these categories:
Impossible not to do these things, you say? I thought so too, until I realized the stress of dealing with ‘urgent’ tasks, and the disappointment of not getting to important (to me) ones, were making me miserable, and ultimately ill. How did I get rid of the urgent unimportant tasks? It was a three-step process:
As an example of step 3: A couple of weeks ago, we hosted the annual neighbourhood barbecue (which has actually evolved into a day-long series of events that take quite a bit of planning and preparation). In past years, the two preceding days have been, for me and my wife, an exhausting flurry of activities, where everything else gets deferred to make sure we’re ready. And sometimes we don’t get as much chance to socialize with the neighbours as we’d like during the event, because we’re constantly dealing with urgent little matters (e.g. “we forgot to get mayo for the burgers, could you run to the store?”) This year, because of my health, I had to scale back my ambitions. I cleaned and resurfaced our barbecue deck, because I wanted to learn how to do it and because it needed to be done desperately (i.e. quadrant 1). But many of the things that I urgently wanted to do but which weren’t that important I knew weren’t going to get done. I prepared my excuses for not having weeded the lawn, not having repainted the patio furniture etc.
But then something amazing happened. Starting the day before the event, neighbours started calling up and asking if there was anything they could do. And instead of the usual stoic “no that’s fine, we’ve got it under control” we said “OK that’s very kind of you”. One neighbour who loves to paint and prides herself on her skill at it repainted 16 plastic patio chairs and tables. She loved doing it, did it brilliantly, and eliminated that quadrant 3 task from our list. Another neighbour came over with floral arrangements for all the tables. Another cleaned our pool. Another, who fancies himself an oenophile, picked out and delivered all the wine for the event. Other neighbours donated lovely hand-made prizes for the annual charity raffle that follows our dinner, reducing the cost of the prizes and allowing us to donate more to the local community charity. This was all spontaneous stuff, turning what would have been stressful chores for us into joyful activities that made the whole event better and more collaborative. All we had to do was ‘let go’ of the responsibility for these quadrant 3 tasks, and others who actually like doing these tasks self-delegated to do them for us. The only cost was a few genuine and appreciated “Thank You’s”. A next-door neighbour went home and retrieved some mayo. During the actual events, like Goofy Golf, we participated more fully than ever before. We had as much time for socializing as our guests. Everything went flawlessly. We partied until 2am and were so relaxed we could have gone on longer.
This may be an exceptional example, but it makes the point: What’s an unimportant, distracting chore to you can be something important, satisfying, even joyful to someone else. Let go, stop being a control freak about your responsibilities and you may be amazed how much others will willingly, even enthusiastically take off your plate, while creating no obligation to you to ‘return the favour’. It’s human nature to enjoy helping other people we like. Why is it so hard for us to let them do so?
The first and second steps are harder, but they get easier with practice. Some people are naturals at doing these things, and studying them as ‘role models’ can help you learn how to do these steps quite gracefully, until they become ‘second nature’, and can show you how to ‘get away with them’ without adverse consequences.
One of my mantras lately has been: We do what we must, then we do what’s easy, then we do what’s fun. Getting rid of the quadrant 3 tasks is a means of reducing the number of things you ‘must’ do, freeing up and making time for what’s easy and fun (most stuff that is really important to us tends also to be fun). So by this simple process, just by human nature you end up spending more of your time doing things that are important and joyful. Besides, you tend to do a better job at things you think are important. And the few urgent things you can’t avoid become less stressful and overwhelming, so you have more time to do them and you do a better job at them too.
The upshot of all this is that my GTD lists have become so much shorter, quickly crossed off, and easy to memorize (you don’t forget stuff that’s important to you) that I no longer refer to them daily, but weekly. I’m getting a lot more done with less work and less stress. I’m enjoying what I do every day. I’m making progress on things I’ve been putting off for a decade. I have the time and perspective to think things through more rationally, emotionally and intuitively, so I’m making better decisions. My ‘personal productivity’ has soared.
My apologies if this all comes across as a bit evangelical. I’m just kicking myself for not realizing it before. Why does it so often take a crisis, a kick in the head, to wake us up to some simple changes that can transform our lives, and make us so much happier and fulfilled? I’m beginning tothink I’m not the only ‘slow learner’ out there.
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