What’s important? How to Make Real Progress in Your Life

Make Progress in Your Life - The Pay Calculator

I guess you’re busy right? Everyone is. But why is it that some people can appear to be the busiest people alive, but never seem to actually get anywhere?

It’s because of priorities.

Working hard, getting lots done and always being on the go is one thing, but unless these activities are focused on your goals, then you’ll never really make progress.

Of course, there’s only a limited amount of time we all have. So what’s the trick? It’s about choosing the right priorities for the things you spend your time on.

Urgent and Important

A quote from Dwight D. Eisenhower sets the foundation for one of the most famous time-management principles used today.

“I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent” 

Popularised by the book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven Covey, Eisenhower’s Decision Principle helps you to group the tasks on your to-do list based on their urgency and importance.

Here’s a matrix illustrating this principle:

Decision Matrix - The Pay Calculator

There are two distinctions – urgency and importance.

Urgent means that a task needs attention right away. These are the things that are practically yelling at you to get them done. They often put you into a reactive mode, which along with it comes defensiveness, negativity, rushing and a narrow mindset.

Important tasks are the things that contribute to the long-term goal. Sometimes, important tasks are also urgent, but often they’re not. And that’s where people can go wrong and end up doing lots of the wrong things.

How often do you come across someone that’s just “so busy”? It’s really not hard to find people that claim to be super busy in all aspects of their life – but what do they achieve? By definition, if you’re busy doing things, but not working towards your goals (i.e. what’s important for you), then you’re doing the wrong things.

When reading these ideas aloud it sounds pretty simple, but many of us often fall into the trap of believing all urgent activities are also important.

Let’s look at each of the four quadrants in the decision matrix and talk about where we should be spending most of our time if we want to be most productive.

Quadrant 1: Urgent and Important

Tasks in this quadrant are both urgent and important. They require your immediate attention (urgent) but also work towards your goal (important).

The types of tasks that often end up here are deadlines, problems and emergencies.

Examples:

  • School assignment due tomorrow, but haven’t started.
  • Family member in the emergency room.
  • New business opportunity that needs acting on now.
  • Crisis at work.
  • Car engine won’t start.

Although important, the urgent nature of these tasks makes them less than ideal for maximising productivity, because you are in reactive mode when dealing with them and it’s not on your own terms or timeline.

With some planning and organisation, lots (not all) of the tasks in this quadrant can eliminated, or at least made to be less time consuming. For example, by completing a task well ahead of schedule you can avoid the last minute rush before a deadline, especially if something else comes up or the task proves to be more complicated than expected.

You can’t completely eliminate urgent and important talks, but you can significantly reduce them by spending as much time as possible in quadrant 2.

Quadrant 2: Not Urgent, but Important

This is where most of life’s most beneficial tasks lie – those tasks that you know you need to do, know will help you achieve your goals, but can never seem to find the time (or motivation) to do.

Not urgent but important tasks don’t have specific deadlines, but are important to helping you achieve your goals, be it personal, school, or work.

Examples:

  • Planning ahead.
  • Family time.
  • Working on your side project.
  • Spending time with your wife/husband.
  • Improving your skills.

These are the types of tasks that can lead us to the most happiness and success. But there are two key challenges that prevent us from putting enough time into them:

  • Not knowing what’s truly important to you. To know what tasks are most important, you need to first work out what matters most to you. If we don’t have a clearly defined guiding purpose or goals, then we can tend to float around giving our energy to whatever tasks happen to be most urgent at the time.
  • Only focusing on what’s right ahead. It’s so easy to work on things that are right there and need to be done (i.e. urgent tasks). It’s hard to be motivated to consistently work on things that don’t have a deadline. Because skipping it today won’t hurt right? Neither will tomorrow, or the next. But it will eventually, and all of these small losses build up. On the other hand the small wins from actually doing the important things in life will build up and before you know it, you’ll have achieved so much more than you thought possible.

The quadrant 2 activities aren’t screaming out for attention and as a result can be kept forever in the background of our lives, there under the surface, but never acted on. That ‘someday’ will never come if the decision to act today isn’t taken.

There are always reasons and excuses for not doing, starting or completing something, but the truth is that the traffic lights of life will never all be green. If you wait for everything to be perfect (all lights to be green), the day won’t come. Life will only get busier and busier as you get older, so there’s no better time than right now to do what’s important to you.

Quadrant 3: Urgent and Not Important

These types of tasks are often interruptions from other people.

Examples:

  • People asking for favours.
  • Requests for your time.
  • Phone calls
  • Text messages.

Lots of people spend most of their time in this quadrant. These tasks feel important, but they don’t help you achieve your goals. Of course there needs to be a balance. People have responsibilities and relationships that are important to maintain and grow, so helping others is a good thing and should be encouraged. But acknowledge it for what it is – helping others, and not necessarily moving forward on your path.

You can feel like you’re getting a lot done in a day, but not actually make any progress.

Quadrant 4: Not Urgent and Not Important

These activities are basically distractions. Sure, they have a purpose occasionally (for example, watching TV for half an hour to unwind after a long day at work), but often are a waste of time.

Examples:

  • Watching TV.
  • Scrolling through Facebook.
  • Browsing YouTube.
  • Video games.
  • Wandering around the shopping centre.

Don’t think that you need to eliminate these activities completely, but try to spend a very limited amount of time on them. Besides, you’ll enjoy watching a movie a lot more if you only watch a couple a month, rather than one each day.

Putting it into practice

With the constant stimulus in our lives, it really is a challenge to distinguish between what’s urgent and truly important.

Here’s how it can look in practice:

  • Spend most of your time in quadrant 2, planning, organising, and working towards your most important goals.
  • By doing so, you’ll minimise the emergencies and problems of quadrant 1, which will in turn free you up physically (time) and mentally.
  • With more time and less panic, you can balance time in quadrant 3 to help and do good for others, even if not necessarily working towards your own goals.
  • Then at the end of it all, you can truly enjoy the downtime offered by quadrant 4 activities on occasion.

If you try to apply these four quadrants to as much of your life as possible, you’ll start to see a clearer picture about where you’re heading and where you want to go.

You be rewarded with the feeling of calm, control and eventually success.

You’ll actually start making real progress.

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