TLDR: Decide what’s important for you – schedule in time to work on that – spend energy on expanding your influence and don’t worry about what you cannot control.
Personal productivity is something very personal. Certainly now that a lot of us are working from home, work might have taken over even more of our time.
It certainly happened to me. In my current one-bedroom apartment my desk is setup in the living room. So it’s hard to escape work. Also, I’ve had more early morning meetings, more lunch meetings and more late night working sessions to get things done. There’s no clear delineation anymore between work and personal life.
I’m on vacation right now (yeah right, vacation? Then why are you blogging?), and one of the things I want to achieve this vacation (next to relaxing and disconnecting) is to figure out a better work-life balance when I get back “to the office”.
As I was thinking about how I was going to approach this, one of the first things that came to mind was advice from one of my favorite non-fiction books, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey. I’ve read that book multiple times, and what I’m sharing in this blog post is one of the most important lessons I’ve learnt from that book.
Although very important, I need to remind myself of this lesson frequently. This blog post serves as both a reminder to myself, as well as a way to share this knowledge with the rest of the world.
What you’ll learn in this blog post are three things:
- How to focus on more important tasks,
- How to think about spending time and energy on things within and outside of your control,
- How I currently manage my schedule to schedule important work.
I actually have a list of 5 items I want to share related to personal productivity. This blog post started out as a way to explain all five, but number one took up a blog post upon itself. I might share the other four at a later point.
So, why don’t we dive into how to focus on what’s important?
How to discover what’s truly a priority in your life?
How do you decide what’s important? Is it what your manager thinks is important? Is it what your spouse or partner thinks is important? Or rather what your friends think is important? Or, do you have your own definition of your priorities?
If you’re interested, let me walk you through a thought experiment. To envision what might important for you, think about either your spouse, one of your kids or your best friend delivering your eulogy at your funeral. What would you want them to say about you? Would you want them to describe you as an amazing worker, who always stayed late at the office and did great work? Or would you like them to describe you as a partner and friend who was always there for them? Would you like them to describe your awesome Netflix viewing history and how you were able to binge-watch the last season of Game of Thrones the night it was released? Or would you like them to describe the time you spent with friends and family and how you were always there in times of need?
This thought experiment is a little bit of a morbid experience, and I hope it helps you frame your priorities. I’m not at all trying to say that you should never stay late at the office and never enjoy a night (or weekend) of Netflix binge-watching, but it’s worth thinking about the impact this has.
Let’s make priority setting a bit more practical, by having a look at the four quadrants of productivity.
The four quadrants of productivity
Before we dive into the four quadrants of productivity, let me take you through yet another thought experiment. If I were to somehow be able to magically give you another hour in each day, how would you like to spend this hour. Just think about your answer, and keep it in mind as we walk through the four quadrants.
In his book ‘the seven habits’, Covey provides a mental model to think about how you’re spending your time. He divides all time you spend on certain tasks and activities in 4 categories, separated by whether the activity is important or not and whether it’s urgent or not.
Let’s take a quick look at all four of those quadrants:
- Urgent and important: Think of quadrant 1 as fire-fighting. Those type of urgent and important tasks that you have to deal with. An outage on a production system that you work on. A task your manager gives you that you have to complete ASAP with a lot on the line. Activities in quadrant 1 require your immediate and undivided attention, and are super important for you.
- Not urgent, but important: Think of quadrant 2 like preparation. It’s the rehearsal for a show. It’s the training for a marathon. It’s the professional training to become better at your job. It’s important that you complete these tasks, but they are not urgent. You can always complete the training tomorrow, and you can always skip a day of training for a marathon.
- Urgent, and not important: Quadrant 3 are the activities that feel like fire-fighting, but the fire is in somebody else’s house. It’s the type of tasks that are important to other people, but not to you. Think about a production outage on a system you are not working on. Or a task your manager gives you to make him look good, but that does you no benefit (other than pleasing your manager maybe). Activities in quadrant 3 might feel good because you are working on something urgent, but 2 weeks from now, everybody (including you) will have forgotten about them.
- Not urgent and not important. Netflix. Twitter. Facebook. Those types of activities that are time-killers. Quadrant 4 is filled with those activities and tasks that make you feel good, but don’t improve you at all. As I said before, there’s nothing wrong with time spent in quadrant 4, as everybody needs to be able to disconnect. But be honest, was the extra hour a day I gave you spent doomscrolling Twitter?
Now that we explored the four quadrants, think back to the thought experiment we did earlier. How would you fill that extra hour a day that I would been magically able to deliver to you? When I first went through this exercise, my answer was “sleep”. Other answers I’ve heard from friends and colleagues are “work out”, “spend time playing with the kids” or “read a book”.
All of those activities – including sleep, since sleep is super important for physical and mental restauration – are quadrant 2 activities. Activities that are important, but not urgent.
Now, why this sudden focus on quadrant 2? Well, because activities in quadrant 2 are often neglected (I am a victim of this myself) by spending time in the other quadrants. Quadrant 2 is the time you are able to spend to improve yourself, to work on things that are important to you, but are not a priority.
There’s a side benefit of spending more time in quadrant 2 as well. The more time spent in quadrant 2, the less time is often required on quadrant 1. The funny thing about neglected activities in quadrant 2, is that they tend to suddenly pop up in quadrant 1. If you haven’t worked out all year, all of a sudden your doctor might tell you your blood pressure, cholesterol and/or blood sugar is too high and you need (urgently) to work out. If you haven’t worked on your personal development all year, all of a sudden you might be working on a project that (urgently) requires you to know about a new technology.
By focusing on quadrant 2 activities earlier and more often, you avoid them suddenly becoming urgent on times when that’s very inappropriate (when, if ever is an urgent task fun to work on?).
Now, how can one spend more time in quadrant 2? By decreasing the time spent in quadrant 3 and 4 (you could try to decrease time spent in quadrant 1 as well, but these crises are important for you, so you have to deal with them). It might sound easier said than done, because when your calendar shows free, people simple book meetings upon meetings on your schedule and you feel like you cannot say no to them.
A good trick to spend more time in quadrant 2 is to schedule time to thoughtfully spend in quadrant 2. Stephen R. Covey called this “putting the big rocks first”, and there’s a great video of him demonstrating this with physical rocks:
What he and the lady from the audience demonstrate is that by putting the big rocks first, you can fit a lot more in a bucket than if you put the little rocks first and then try to fit in the big rocks afterwards. Even more, if you were able to fit in the big rocks and a couple of small rocks spilled over (i.e. time in quadrant 3 and 4), would that matter so much?
The big idea behind time spent in quadrant 2 is that it is the most important time you can spend. It helps you improve yourself and focus time on what’s important to you. By scheduling this time proactively, you have a higher likelihood of actually spending time in quadrant 2 rather than being pulled in all types of different directions.
How I have implemented and currently implement quadrant 2 time
Since I learnt about quadrant 2 time, I’ve played around with scheduling that time on my calendar. For a while, I had blocked every Friday morning as personal development Friday and tried to spend that time on actually studying. I had mixed results, things happen, but thinking back to that time, about 3/4 of Fridays I actually spent some time on actually studying (not necessarily the entire full morning, but some hours of it at least).
Right now, I’ve got 2 repeating blocks of time on my calendar that are quadrant 2 time for myself.
- Lunch time. A 1 hour block of time on my calendar showing as busy between noon and 1PM. I put this on myself after I noticed I had to skip a lot of lunches when COVID started. Most days now, I step away from the desk, and spend about 45 minutes to an hour on the patio having lunch and reading.
- 1/2 day of pipeline management and learning. Let me start by being honest: This time I didn’t put on myself, but I appreciate the time nonetheless. In my broader team (what they call a region in Microsoft, about 500 people) got an invite from our regional VP to block our Friday afternoon to spend on pipeline management and training. Both are quadrant 2 activities, which might quickly slip in quadrant 1. When pipeline is unhealthy, managers call you for an explanation. When mandatory training isn’t completed on time, you end up on the naughty list, and you never want to be on the naughty list.
Outside of those two blocks, if I notice my calendar fills up with a lot of meetings, I tend to also reserve time for myself to focus on important work. Last week, I put some dedicated time on my calendar to focus on ‘playing around with Azure Arc’ and to work on an important customer task. If I hadn’t blocked that time, somebody might have put more meetings during that time, which I didn’t want to happen.
As a reference, this is what my calendar looked like last week:
Here you can see what that looks like. On 3 (and a half) days out of 5 I was able to enjoy my lunchtime. The meeting on Thursday’s is a recurrent meeting with a partner about an important customer project, and I don’t mind ending my lunch earlier to chat with them (you could consider it quadrant 2 as well). The meeting on Friday during lunch was a customer escalation, where I needed to be present. A clear quadrant 1 experience that I couldn’t get out of.
btw. You might notice I color code my calendar, I find this super useful to get a good understanding of how my week is going to be spent:
- Red is time spent with customers. I consider this the most important time I spend.
- Yellow is time spent in internal meetings. I try to minimize the amount of time I spend in yellow. There’s one very fun yellow box on there, virtual happy hour. A fun way to connect with my peers. I aim to join them at least every other week.
- Pink is time spent doing multi-customer events (e.g. webinars / Twitch livestreaming).
- Purple is training and personal development.
- Green is what I call “solo-work reservation” (typically quadrant 1 and 2 type work that I want to block time for).
- Default outlook blue is used for non-important meetings I might join or want to keep on my schedule for reference. Also, colleagues of mine out-of-office reminders as you see on Wednesday.
That’s how I currently implement my quadrant 2 focus. Given my calendar is filling up quickly for the weeks after my vacation, I might actually go ahead and schedule more time for either focus work or training.
A mental model to stop worrying about non-important tasks
In closing, let me share a mental model – also by Covey – on how you can try to stop worrying about non-important tasks. Consider your mind and what you think (or concern yourself) about and consider how much of that is in your control.
You will always concern yourself with things that are outside of your control, like the weather, politics or the dangers of the coronavirus.
Now consider this, how healthy is it to spend time and mental energy worrying about things that are outside of your control?
Wouldn’t that time and energy be better spent on things that are in your control? Or even better, on trying to get those things – if they are important to you – in your control. Let’s take the same examples as before, the weather, politics and coronavirus:
- There’s little you can do about the weather, so don’t worry about it. Don’t let your day be ruined by bad weather. If it’s a really big concern however, you might be able look up a weather map and drive an hour to a place with better weather (I actually did this with my wife during a holiday with particularly bad weather. We drove 2 hours to another city and had a wonderful day).
- Politics are something we can exert little control over. I for one cannot even vote in the US, so I try to not worry myself too much about it. However, as a citizen of the US (or any other country), you can influence politics by going out and voting. It’s a very important part of living in a democracy.
Another tip on politics: if at every family gathering you end up in a huge fight with your uncle Bob about politics, you can take control over the situation and not discuss politics and steer the conversation to a more enjoyable topic (like the weather maybe?).
- The same tips as above apply to the coronavirus situation. We have little control on how the virus spreads throughout the whole country. We do however have a lot of control on how the virus impact our own family’s health. For example, not going out to large gatherings, wearing a mask whenever possible and washing hands are ways we take control over the situation. Take control of those little things, and try not to worry about the larger impact.
Overall, the goal here is to spend your time and energy expanding your circle of influence, and trying to shrink the circle of concern.
Don’t misinterpret some of my points here about “not worrying” as me encouraging you to act like an ostrich and burry your head in the sand. My point is rather to acknowledge those elements outside of your control, and to not spend needless amounts of time and energy worrying about them. For example, I don’t want to ignore the large impact of the coronavirus and the huge impact it has had on people’s live. I rather want to focus my energy on what I can change and impact (e.g. wearing a mask or giving a bigger tip when going to get takeout).
In this blog post, I shared one of the main lessons I learnt from Covey’s book the seven habits. We looked into how you set your own priorities, how I’ve personally done this myself and how spend your time and mental energy on your circle on control, rather than worrying about things you cannot control.
I hope this post was useful for you, and triggers you to focus more on your own priorities.