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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.


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