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A while back a friend was talking about the topic of productivity and presented this diagram:

Merrill Covey Matrix on productivity

These squares divide tasks in life into 4 big categories:

  1. Important and Urgent
  2. Important but Not Urgent
  3. Urgent but Unimportant
  4. Not Urgent and Unimportant

It’s almost our basic instinct to tackle as many tasks in square 1 as possible; after all, those are frantic fires that we must put out, a relationship that we must fix, and an exam that’s happening tomorrow that we’re cramming for. But, let’s take a step back and think this over, is operating in this “fire hose mode” really the most effective and productive? How about we shift our perspective and ask “how did these tasks end up in square 1”? That might raise the insight that we have procrastinated our study, put off the problems in our relationship and let the negative emotions piled up, ignore to eat healthily and exercise and we fall ill, or postpone working on things that help our dreams come to fruition until we can’t stand it anymore. Tasks in square 2 will bring benefits, happiness and contentment in the long run, and they require careful attention and commitment, so why don’t we keep working on them to prevent them from falling into square 1, and let square 1 house what are truly emergencies?

What about the other squares then? How do we deal with them to increase our productivity?  It’s easy to understand why we want to drop tasks in square 4, they’re the 20 episodes of the “must watch” TV show, the hottest gossip over certain celebrities or people around us, or the cell phone ring tone and wallpaper that we have to change every day; these are merely time wasters and bring us almost no benefits or values; if they’re a must, we should find ways to complete them more efficiently. We want to eliminate time wasters and distribute our time and effort over more meaningful ones. For tasks in square 3 – the urgent but unimportant ones, such as a 5-hours-only sale that ends in 2 hours, a text message you receive when driving, or an afternoon tea invitation when you’re studying, they are more so distractions than matters that you must deal with. It’s okay to entertain these issues every now or at appropriate times, as they could be one of those “seize the opportunity” chances or things that can be put off, addressing them could bring joy and/or future potentials, but they should not be our priority.

As we can see, by increasing attention to tasks in square 2, we put our focus on things that improve quality of life and self-value, and we’re always doing something meaningful with composure. It benefits us to give these essential tasks the effort and thoughts that they deserve, rather than rushing through them and end up doing sloppy jobs (if we’re handling them this way we’ve put them in square 1 already). There’s always the wisdom of placing tasks into the correct squares, and for that, we need to really ask ourselves what are the things that are truly important and bring long term values, and what are things that if not done, subtracts nothing from our lives.


Someone asked me how I keep being self-disciplined, I tried to gather my thought and the following things definitely help me stay motivated:

[1] Have a goal/deadline
I had a goal to run a full marathon on May 9, 2014. It was a very clear goal: run 26.2 miles on Mar 9, 2014, so on I went looking up professional training plans and followed one as best as I could (I didn’t follow 100% of it, some days I was too busy, too tired, or sick, but I tried my best), coz I knew if I did not follow the training plan, I could not finish the 26.2 mi (I had completed a 1/2 marathon [13.1 mi] before, and it was already tough for me, so I knew I must properly train for a full). Or, if I use piano exam as an example, I have a clear goal again: pass with Distinction for grade X piano on a certain date, so what I have to do is practicing all material required at the exam (and I did find a teacher to help me), otherwise, why even bother to sign up for the exam? I don’t want to go and fail.

[2] Have the DESIRE to do it
“If you want something badly enough, it can happen.” – this is actually from an Olympic swimmer, if I remember correctly, she was 32 years old at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. I think she’s from Australia. She won a gold medal. She knew 2008 was probably the last year for her to fight for an Olympic gold (next time she’ll be 36, she might not be able to compete with the young swimmers physically), so she trained super hard, she really really wanted the gold medal, and she got it.

[3] Add some external motivation (aka “pressure”)
Tell people what we’re going to accomplish, have them keep us accountable; and we’d better find people who will really kick us if we don’t follow through. This is not the nicest way to help us stay on track but it works. Sometimes, making yourself feel bad if you don’t follow through will have a positive outcome.

[4] Think about the consequence
This might be a bit “negative motivation”. When we get lazy, and we know we can’t afford to be lazy, try to ask ourselves “Can you live with the consequences? Are you willing to make up for lost time? In fact, will you be able to make up the lost time?”

[5] Have companions working towards the same/similar goal
This probably helps the most when we’re doing things that we feel like we’re not “born” to do or want to do. If you’re running a marathon, join a group who shares training progress and articles on running, and go to the race together. But, if there are some things we DESIRE to do (point #2), we can probably do them by ourselves even if people don’t show, we should not care about others’ commitment in those cases. Let’s not have undecided people to drag us down. I recently read a quote – “surround yourself with those on the same mission as you”, don’t let others drag us down.

[6] Believe that you can do it!
Once, in a class, the teacher sensed I wasn’t very sure about myself, and he wrote me “…you’re actually better than what you think you are… Whatever we believe we can be, we become”. I still remember that moment when I read his words. This positive energy is very important. If you don’t think you can accomplish something, or can benefit from doing it, it’s hard to want to keep pressing on, esp when there are struggles. This exact encouragement is what I’m reminding myself of every day – “Whatever we believe we can be, we become”.

[7] Reward yourself on accomplishments
One small step at a time, believe that you are improving and closer to your goal through every little step. This is very cliche – Thomas Edison failed 1000 times before finding the right material for the light bulb. When Edison was asked how he felt after failing 1000 times trying to invent the light bulb, he replied, “I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.”

[8] Stay positive
There will be negative comments along the way, or people trying to rationalize things with you, remember that talks are just talks, if those talkers are not the ones in the battle with you, then they’re not the ones doing the things WITH you, then, kindly appreciate the outsider comments, digest them, if they make sense, incorporate in your plans, but stay focused and keep believing in yourself! The one accomplishing things and winning the battle will be YOU, not the talkers!

Hope these thoughts are resonating with you.

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