Rethinking urgent priorities can improve your quality of life


June 19, 1994|By A. Roger Merrill | A. Roger Merrill,Special to the Sun

Is "faster" necessarily "better"?

Most of us act as though we believe it is. Rush, busyness and urgency have become a way of life, both personally and organizationally. And what's the price? Stress? Tension? Yes, but there are even bigger costs -- opportunity costs.

When we get caught in "the thick of thin things," it's not necessarily that the things we rush to do more of are bad; it's just that, often, they aren't the best. The "good" becomes the enemy of the "best."

Please take a moment and visualize a large square divided into four smaller squares. These four quadrants describe how we usually spend our time based on the factors of "urgency" and "importance."

In Quadrant I are matters both "urgent" and "important." Here's where you handle an irate client, meet a deadline, repair a broken-down machine, undergo heart surgery, or help a crying child who has been hurt.

Quadrant II is "important, but not urgent." Here's where you do long-range planning, anticipate and prevent problems, empower others, broaden your mind and increase your skills, prepare for important meetings and presentations, or invest in relationships through deep, honest listening.

Quadrant III is "urgent, but not important." Many phone calls, meetings and drop-in visitors fall into this category. Urgency makes activities seem important, but closer analysis reveals they really aren't.

Quadrant IV is "not urgent and not important." Activities such as reading addictive light novels, habitually watching "mindless" television shows or gossiping around the water fountain fall into this category.

As you study the matrix, consider where you spent the majority jTC of your time last week. Were you essentially reacting to the urgent -- or were you acting on the important?

Now consider the effect of increasing the amount of time you spend in Quadrant II. How would it affect your work? If everyone in your organization did it, what would be the effect on quality, customer service, decision-making? What about your personal life: What would be the effect on your health, your relationships, your family life, your ability to contribute, your overall happiness and quality of life?

There are no "quick fix" magic tools or techniques that can guarantee that you will be able to keep the main things the main things in your life, but here's a suggestion that will make a profound difference over time. Take a few minutes right now and think deeply about the most important things in your life. Consult your inner wisdom, your inner compass.

Ask yourself, "What could I do this week to be a better person, spouse, parent, employee, friend?" Jot down your thoughts.

Now take just one or two things from the list and write down a specific time of day during the week to do them. Don't get carried away with the list. Start small. Make a commitment and keep it.

If you were to do this each week for the next year -- if you just set one Quadrant II goal in your personal life and one in your professional life every week -- and you achieved those goals, what would be the impact on your life and on those around you?

The big problem with urgency is that the degree to which urgency dominates our lives is the degree to which importance does not. We don't even stop to consult our inner compass.

One of the biggest tragedies of all is to climb the ladder of success only to discover it's been leaning against the wrong wall.

A. Roger Merrill and Rebecca Merrill are co-authors along with Stephen R. Covey of "First Things First" (Simon & Schuster). Mr. Merrill also is a founding member and vice president of Covey Leadership Center, a self-improvement firm for CEOs and executives based in Provo, Utah. For a complimentary, four-week organizer, call (800) 680-6839.

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