My mother-in-law grew up on a ranch in Mexico - way out in the middle of nowhere. She milked her cows to make her cheese. If she wanted barbecued chicken, she had to start by catching the chicken.
I asked her at one point if chickens actually run around with their heads cut off. She said sure, grabbed a chicken, lobbed off its head, and sure enough, it ran around well flopped around until she grabbed it and the gory story came to an end.
When I saw that, I thought, hey, this looks like people working. (Or something like that).
What I have observed is that people work on the wrong stuff
Shiny things attract us. The shiniest things are emergencies or something somewhere that pings us and says, "hey look at me!!! I am shiny!"
(Like the email notification that I just received, despite writing on Ulysses and blanking out everything, that email notification made its way through.)
We all work hard and do lots of stuff, but much of it is entirely unnecessary.
Here is the challenge: shiny things are URGENT. They are coming at you trying to make you take action. However, just because something is urgent doesn't mean it is important.
Of course, there are also urgent things that are important. We have to take care of those, mostly. There is a problem with working on urgent, important, work, however: it is an ineffective place to work. When we work on things in a rush, we don't give ourselves time to think about them. We just do.
I like to tell the story of a consultant who worked for me. Every time I sent him a message, he would get back to me within minutes, if not seconds. One time, in particular, I was seven hours ahead of him, and I sent him a question that he would have to consider deeply.
It was 3 AM his time.
I had a response five minutes later.
I didn't want an immediate response; I wanted a thoughtful response (I even wrote that in the email). I wanted him to get a good night's sleep and use his brain the next day to solve the problem.
He lived in a world of anything from me was urgent, important, and needed an answer right away, even at 3 in the morning.
His answer was incomplete and useless.
It was as if he woke up in the middle of the night and wrote the first response that came to mind…
Anyway, the point is that working in that urgent space is inefficient and leads to poor delivery. Even worse, because he sent me a lousy response, I had more questions, which were also urgent and the thing snowballed into lots of back and forth and lots of work that just wasn't necessary.
There is a much better way, prioritize your work so that you are working on things before they become urgent or as needed, rather than as they appear to you in their shiny irresistible form.
Introducing the Covey Four Square
I have been using this tool as an advisory tool ever since I found it in Steven Covey's, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and I think it is a handy way to think about prioritizing your work.
The way the quadrant works is that you plot importance on one axis and urgency on another. You end up with the four quadrants of the Cartesian plane representing four levels of work:
Quadrant one is important, urgent stuff. In corporate speak we often call this "fire fighting" so think of this as a house burning down - you must put the house out, there is no way around it.
Quadrant two is important, not urgent stuff These are tasks that matter but aren't quite critical yet. For example, something like making your house more fireproof or fire resistant. Anybody who lives in a forested area will know about creating defendable space - a clearing around the house that makes it harder for a fire to reach the house and more straightforward for firefighters to defend the home from fire.
Again, most of our time is in quadrant one. However, here is the exciting thing, the more time we spend in quadrant 2, the fewer urgent, important things come up.
If you prepare your house to not burn, you are much less likely to be in the situation where it is on fire, and you must put it out. You are much better off preventing the fire than putting it out.
My consultant example above follows the same pattern: rather than create a ton of work responding immediately and in pieces, just sit down and do it the right way from the beginning. Not only is this less stressful, but it is a lot easier.
Quadrant 4 is urgent, but not important in my household example this might be something like pruning the fruit trees. It is best to prune trees within a window of time, so it is urgent. However, in the grand scheme of things, it isn't run the important. Properly pruned and blooming fruit trees is more of a nice to have.
There is a lot of urgent not important work out there. Much of the world's communication falls into this category.
Anything and everything marked FYI generally falls into this category. It is urgent because it pops up, but if the sender can't even be bothered to write about why you should care, it is pretty much irrelevant. Just delete.
Quadrant 3 is neither urgent nor important continuing with the housing analogy this might be painting the walls. Even better is watching Netflix.
It is perfectly okay to do quadrant 3 stuff; we have to do it mindfully. Decide to binge watch Stranger Things with a tube of popcorn on a rainy Saturday afternoon - go for it. Just know that it is unimportant, enjoy it. Have fun. However, don't do it for the rest of your life.
Now that you know what the four squares are, what do you DO about it?
The crux of the fours squares as I use them and understand them is this:
- You must do urgent and important stuff.
- Many times, things that seem urgent, aren't. So work to reduce urgency ask yourself what you can schedule and what you can postpone.
- "Postpone" does not mean "procrastinate." Schedule it and make time for it so that you do the work but give yourself time to do it.
- Relentlessly focus on non-urgent important work. That will reduce urgent/important work.
- Number 4 is so significant that I will repeat it: work in important but not urgent, this is where your real power to deliver quality work and make a difference lies, this is where you are in control.
- Unimportant doesn't mean it doesn't get done. There is stuff in life that isn't important that you do anyway, enjoy it.
- Remember that important also depends on perspective. Some things may be unimportant for work but essential for life. If you are a fruit farmer, pruning trees is important. You may not think yoga is critical, I can't live without it. Know what matters to you.
Keep these in mind as you think about your work.
The Four Square Exercise
A few years ago, I worked with an executive team at a large international company. The team lived, breathed, and did everything in between in quadrant one. They were the best firefighters out there, and they liked to work hard.
However, they couldn't get anything done.
When we asked them to categorize their work, they all thought they were in control in the non-urgent quadrant. So we asked the administrative assistants.
We agreed with the team on how to categorize their work, then went back over a month of their activities and put them in the quadrants. More than 85% of their time was spent in quadrant 1. Almost none was spent in quadrant 2.
When they saw this, they made a shift. The most concerning metric for them was safety, and by shifting their focus to quadrant two, they reduced safety issues by more than 60%. They were also able to launch an innovation program and cut out millions of dollars in recurring costs.
Not through magic, through focus.
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So please stop working like a headless chicken. That is just messy.