How to change your life: From the author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

Feel overwhelmed by your ever-expanding to-do list? We went to world-renowned productivity guru Stephen R. Covey to find out how you can master your universe
By Stephen R. Covey
woman, red door, breifcase, running late Getty Images

Does this describe your life?
No time for exercise in the morning. Mainline coffee. Dive into your email and spend all day answering other people’s questions. This ‘work’ piles up, so you can’t take time for lunch. Work late and go home exhausted to an equally exhausted family. You’re so wired you can’t sleep, so you burn up the night surfing the internet or watching TV. The next day, it starts over. Although you’re incredibly tired and busy, you never feel like you’re accomplishing anything meaningful. Our lives are made up of activities that are more or less important and more or less urgent. That means everything we do falls into one of these four quadrants — and learning which one to occupy can make all the difference.

Quadrant 1: Necessity
-Emergency meetings
-Last-minute deadlines
-Pressing problems
-Unforeseen challenges

Quadrant 1 tasks are urgent and important. These are the things that come at you that you need to take care of now. That’s why it’s called the Quadrant of Necessity. An angry client is on the phone, a friend has a heart attack, the printer breaks down at the office. People who live primarily in Q1 are urgency addicts. The gateway to the mind is cluttered with critical priorities that demand attention, now!

Quadrant 3: Distraction  (and no, we didn't miss Quadrant 2! We're saving the best for last...)
-Needless interruptions
-Unnecessary reports
-Irrelevant meetings
-Other people’s minor issues
-Unimportant email, tasks, phone calls, status posts, etc.

Quadrant 3 pursuits are urgent but not important. Many people spend a lot of time in Q3 thinking they’re in Q1. Really, they’re just reacting to other people’s little crises: phone calls, email, text messages, routine but empty meetings, people dropping by — all these can deceive them into thinking they’re getting things done, but really they’re just spinning their wheels. Meanwhile, truly important priorities fall off the agenda. Q3 people are also urgency addicts. This space has always been the true enemy of productivity — and even more so now, thanks to the technological tsunami that swamps us daily.

Quadrant 4: Waste

-Trivial work
-Avoidance activities
-Excessive relaxation, television, gaming, internet

Quadrant 4 activities are neither urgent nor important. We call this the Quadrant of Waste because literally nothing productive gets done. People who live in Q4 watch too much TV, spend hours and hours playing video games, surf the internet into the early hours, or load trivial updates onto Facebook all day. The human brain that hovers constantly over distractions on electronic screens is a Q4 brain. It does what prize-winning author William Powers, in his book Hamlet’s BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age, calls “the digital dance . . . zipping from email to email to text to Web page to buzzing mobile and back again.” There’s everything right with relaxing and having fun as long as it’s not excessive and motivated by a desire to evade important priorities. There’s everything wrong with burning out and burning up your time with mindless entertainment.

Quadrant 2: Extraordinary results
-Proactive work
-High-impact goals
-Creative thinking
-Relationship building
-Learning and renewal

Quadrant 2 tasks are important but not urgent. This is the Quadrant of Extraordinary Results because here you take charge of your own life and create your own great future. Q2 people do the thoughtful, creative, proactive work that changes the world. They plan, they prepare, they prevent crises. They learn, they create, they build relationships. They continually renew their energy levels so they don’t burn out. They do the things everyone knows are most important but few seem to get to.

The 10-minute trick
The return on your investment in Q2 is always more than the time and energy you put into it. Ten minutes to plan your day can make the other 23 hours and 50 minutes much more productive. A quick read of the latest journal in your field can put you far ahead of others in a meeting. And an afternoon’s outing with your child can help build a lifelong bond.

How does it feel to live in Q2? Some of the words we’ve heard: “Fulfilled, at peace, energized, in control.” People who live in Q2 habitually put first things first in their lives. They do most of the truly productive work. They transcend the ordinary and live extraordinary lives. They don’t just get things done, they get the right things done.

How to put first things first

Get out of Q3 and Q4 entirely. No one should have to live a life of distraction or despair.

Visit Q1 only when you must. Too much time in Q1 burns you out because it’s mostly managing crises you could prevent if you spent more time in Q2. Move to Q2 — permanently!

We started by describing a typical day in a life outside Q2. So what’s a Q2 day like?

You get a little exercise in the morning, maybe a refreshing walk. Eat a sensible breakfast. On the job, you tackle the most important things first, the things that will make the most difference over time, instead of getting buried in a pile of email. Lunch with real people instead of your laptop so you feed the relationships you value. After work you reconnect with your loved ones. Watch some fun TV or play a game. And all this time you’re working toward goals that have real meaning for you.

Think about the consequences of neglecting Q2, as so many are doing more and more in this distracted age. In the end, if you haven’t chosen to live in Q2, it won’t matter which other quadrants you choose to live in.

At the age of 26, within the space of what is called his “miracle year,” Albert Einstein published three scientific papers that transformed our understanding of the universe. Some of his ideas arose during long hours of what most people would call daydreaming, in which he did his “thought experiments.” He knew that riding up in an elevator makes you heavier — what would happen, he asked, if that elevator were to accelerate infinitely? Would you become infinitely heavy? He thought about travelling on a light ray. He wondered what matter really is and why there is energy in the universe. What would a 26-year-old Einstein be doing if he lived in our noisy, attention-deficit 21st century? Would he be dreaming about what it would be like to ride on a beam of light? Or would he be updating his Facebook status for the 30th time today?

Stephen R. Covey, PhD, is a leadership and organizational expert and the author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. For more great ideas, visit The5 Choices World Tour.


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