HBS Working Knowledge writes on managing our most proecious asset:
First Things First defines the four quadrants in such a matrix as:
1. Urgent and important tasks (Quadrant I). For example, dealing with a product recall or completing due diligence before an acquisition can be approved.
2. Not urgent but important tasks (Quadrant II). Examples here include developing key business relationships and drafting a plan for how your company will respond to the changes you foresee taking place in your industry 18 months down the road.
3. Urgent but not important tasks (Quadrant III). Examples of these tasks are taking impromptu phone calls from sales reps or fielding a request from a subordinate to help make arrangements for next week’s unit party.
4. Not urgent and not important tasks (Quadrant IV). For instance, surfing the Internet or gossiping around the water cooler.
The more time you devote to important but not urgent work, the more control you have over your schedule. In particular, the less likely it is that your time will be consumed by putting out fires. This comes as no big surpriseso why is it, then, that people have so much difficulty reducing the time they spend on urgent but unimportant tasks? Stephan Rechtschaffen, author of Timeshifting (Broadway Books, 1996), believes the answer has to do with a process known as entrainment, in which a person becomes almost psychologically addicted to the rhythm of the particular task he’s performing.
When you get to tasks that are not urgent and not important, something really interesting happens,” Rechtschaffen observes. “The ambient rhythm in modern life is so fast that even in our leisure time, instead of relaxing, we tend to take on activities that keep us in this fast rhythm.” Thus, typical Quadrant IV recreational activities tend to be things like watching television (with its fast cuts and high-energy commercials) or playing video games (in which the action moves very rapidly).
“Once you’re in a rhythm, the tendency is to stay in synchronization with that rhythm,” says Rechtschaffen. The result is that “in modern life, Quadrant I, III, and IV activities are all happening at high frequencies. Even though the way to reduce the number of Quadrant I crises in your life is to spend more time in Quadrant II, people resist going there because its rhythm is so different.”
To be able to concentrate on work that is important but not urgent, you have to learn how to gear down. Rechtschaffen recommends scheduling specific times for such tasks. “I set aside time for doing my writing. The ground rule is that although I don’t actually have to be writing during this time, I can’t do anything else. What I’ve found, as I’m sitting there not writing, is that guilt feelings or feelings of inadequacy as a writer come up.