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Avoiding Quadrant Four

by Tom Johnson on Mar 24, 2013
categories: technical-writing

I have a few bad habits I'd like to break. One of those habits is crashing on Friday nights. After working all week, I tend to crash around 8pm and let my brain cells go dormant for a few hours watching mindless television. When the morning comes, I open my sleepy eyes and wonder why I wasted all that time the night before. If I could get those hours back, I certainly wouldn't spend them watching TV.

Productivity is a perennial topic for me, as I like to set goals and then reflect on why I don't achieve them. One of the leading authors on productivity, Stephen Covey, approaches productivity by dividing activities into four quadrants:

  • Quadrant 1: Urgent and Important
  • Quadrant 2: Not Urgent but Important
  • Quadrant 3: Urgent but not Important
  • Quadrant 4: Not Urgent and Not Important

Those Friday nights when I crash in front of the TV fit squarely into Quadrant 4. Ideally, if we want to be productive, we want to spend much more time in Quadrant 2, doing important things that aren't urgent. (Quadrant 1 is basically the crisis mode quadrant, and Quadrant 3 is the e-mail, meetings, social media mode.)

Why don't we spend more time in Quadrant 2? I have a few ideas.

No purpose

We may not have any clearly defined purposes that drive our actions. Covey recommends defining a life purpose statement that helps align us with important activities that we can focus on for Quadrant 2 activities.

No stamina

Maintaining your health and strength can give you the stamina to avoid the crashes. Cumulative sleep deprivation eventually catches up to you and encourages you to enter Quadrant 4. Similarly, eating junk food that doesn't provide you with enough real energy can leave you feeling energy-less.

No planning

Planning is also a culprit that drives us into Quadrant 4. If we don't plan for these activities, our schedule gets filled with other things. This is Covey's big rocks / little rocks metaphor. Essentially you should pencil-in Quadrant 2 activities into your schedule first before other things clutter it up.

Poor work technique

Another reason we slide into Quadrant 4 is poor work technique. What's the best work technique? I'm a big fan of interval training. Lots of studies confirm that bursts of intensity followed by periods of slower activity prove more beneficial for exercise. Given that the brain is also a muscle (or like one), shouldn't the same techniques apply? Yes.

One compelling interval technique is the Pomodoro technique, which basically says to set a timer for 25 minutes and focus intensely on the task at hand. You break up larger tasks into a series of pomodoros (a tomato metaphor for 25 minute segments of time), followed by a break. After four pomodoros, you take a longer break.

I like the Pomodoro technique -- I can focus on just about anything for 25 minutes. The time deadline gives me a clear end to reach, which improves my focus and intensity. I'm not sure if 25 minutes is enough to enter a creative flow state, but in strict Pomodoro rules, if you're interrupted in your work, you're supposed to throw away your Pomodoro session and start a new one.

No immediate results

We also avoid Quadrant 2 activities because the activities don't have immediate results. Writing in a journal, going on a bike ride, or doing strategic planning have little effect in the short term. But we have to remember that little actions compounded over a long period of time have compelling results.

Yesterday I was walking across the Golden Gate bridge with my family. I noticed that the long sloping bars on the bridge are actually made up of small straight bar segments. There aren't any curved metal bars on the bridge. But these little bars add up to an impressive curve when all connected together.

The bars on the Golden Gate bridge are made up of a lot of straight bar segments connected together.
The bars on the Golden Gate bridge are made up of a lot of straight bar segments connected together.

Similarly, when we work on the Quadrant 2 activities over the course of a year (for example, writing 3 pages a day of that novel), at the end of the year we see the results.

Going Beyond the Typical Advice

What do we have so far? If we want to stay out of Quadrant 4, we should do the following:

  • Establish purpose
  • Develop stamina
  • Plan early
  • Improve work techniques
  • Look at long-term results

I recognize that my exploration into productivity here doesn't uncover anything new. You'll find better advice reading Forbes articles like How to Be a Super-Achiever: The 10 Qualities That Matter, which provides tips such as incorporating "intelligent persistence" -- the art of trying new methods to get around failures.

Or, here's an article about Jerry Seinfeld's secret productivity technique. He writes an X on his calendar each day he performs the activity, and then tries his best to have an unbroken chain of X's.

30 Minutes a Day, by Jack Cheng, argues that if you carve out just 30 minutes a day to work toward your goal, you'll eventually achieve it.

The 10 Laws of Productivity says to start small and execute on the miniature model before dreaming in the blue sky.

Trying to find the secret to productivity and goal achievement is nothing new. In fact, "How do you do it all?" is a question I frequently receive on this blog (especially when I post a lot).

What's interesting is how few productivity articles are written in first person looking back at how the author achieved a result. It's so much easier to speculate in the abstract. But I bet just about any method will be effective if you stick with it.

For example, if I did 10 Pomodoros a day over the course of the year, I'm pretty sure that would result in my achieving something. Or if I put the big rock(s) on my schedule first thing each morning as I planned my day, it would probably be quite effective.

Too often I get caught in the whirlwind of Quadrant 1 (urgent and important) and lose focus on my long-term goal and vision.

Overall, I think each productivity author has excellent advice. I've already downloaded some new apps and plan to implement these techniques as best I can, as well as develop a stronger purpose and vision.

But if I can inject something new to the advice, I think incorporating some spiritual yearning into the equation would be beneficial. It doesn't seem fashionable to say it, but it seems like real visionaries are driven by something more than good planning and execution. Tap into that and you're on a whole new playing field of productivity.

Overall, I still have a long way to go in my productivity journey.


About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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