We become more resilient, joyful and energized when we live with purpose, so why do we so often unconsciously choose the numbing comfort of disconnection by staying overly “busy?” After several vacation days that felt a bit unproductive and uninspired, I remember the value of the “Eisenhower Matrix.” You may not know it by that name, it was highlighted by Stephen Covey in his classic leadership text The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. It is a framework for setting priorities for your time and energy.
If you take a look at the matrix, it asks us to consider what is urgent and what is important. This is invaluable to learn to apply if we want to live a big, brilliant life – in particular because our world is so overtaken by fast-paced urgency and a level of anxiety that can be truly exhausting. We can use this matrix in our leadership and in our personal pursuits.
This enlightening tool supports intentional, mindful decision making about how we invest our energy and if we live with purpose. Many of us spend so much time on the urgent but unimportant and not nearly enough time on the non-urgent yet important. This is the tyranny of the urgent; it can suck up so much of our energy across all areas of our lives. (Think about social media black holes vs. developing a meditation practice, or continual strings of email vs. writing your poetry or connecting with colleagues about meaningful, innovative ideas.) If you tracked your activities for a few days, what would your matrix look like?
Charles Hummell coined the phrase “the tyranny of the urgent” in his 1967 book of the same name. Only by understanding how our energy and focus is sapped by the unstoppable pull of urgent but unimportant issues, can we start to consciously choose our focus on important, purposeful, meaningful activity. Fair warning – this is not an easy task. The tyranny can keep us from digging deep into the hard work of learning, planning and intentionally creating the life we want. It gives us “easy cover” that keeps us from the tough emotional work to be authentically balanced and joyful and it provides a convenient rationale for procrastinating the “big stuff.” It releases us from the challenge of setting boundaries and learning to say no instead of allowing ourselves to be swept away on the tide of everyday petty concerns. The urgent becomes the hum of distraction that keeps us in a trance and on a treadmill.
Fighting against the tyranny of the urgent is about deciding, mindfully, what is truly most important to us and having the courage to remove the things that keep us from that (in our personal lives and in our leadership). It is emotional and spiritual minimalism – we keep what is helpful and what brings joy and reduce or clear out those things that clutter our calendars and our minds and consume our energy without meaningful payback towards our values. It is, in a sense, the KonMari way of using our life energy. (KonMari originator Marie Kondo asks us to “tidy your space, transform your life” by deciding what is useful and “sparks joy” and decluttering all the rest.)
Of course, this assumes we know what is most important to us, that we understand the deepest values we want to live out. And, trickiest of all, that we understand the subtle ways our own self talk, patterns of behavior, fears and false beliefs fool us into thinking something is more important than it is. They fool us into thinking something simply “must” be done even if we wouldn’t choose it. At the very least our hidden beliefs and patterns may tell us all day long why we “should” and what painful consequences we will avoid by doing such and such. That feeling of “should” might be a feeling of obligation to a family member, colleague or friend. The painful consequence may be our own worry about what a co-worker or boss will think of us, or a sense that we’ll be rejected if we don’t act as others expect.
So, understanding the tyranny of the urgent and recognizing what is truly important to us is the first step, but it isn’t enough to make change. We are creatures of habit with patterns of behavior and thought that have developed over a lifetime of beliefs, assumptions and “agreements” of which we are often not even consciously aware. To move toward a more authentic, purposeful life, you have to figure out who the authentic you actually is. Not the idealized you, not the outwardly created, carefully curated you, not what Ritu Bhasin would call the “performing self.” Many of us have put on so many layers of adaptation, so much self-protective armor that peeling those layers back down to the authentic takes work and that work takes time.
Because of this dynamic, we must commit to intentional self-exploration and self-awareness. Becoming deeply self-aware can be difficult and even painful at times, yet will form a foundation for our pursuit of an authentic life. Daniel Goleman, the preeminent expert on social and emotional intelligence, asserts that self-awareness is the cornerstone of emotional intelligence. The 12 competencies of emotional intelligence that he has extensively researched are all based in this first competency to “know thyself.”
How would you fill out your matrix? What will you prioritize and what will you declutter from your life? Doing this is how we begin to find ourselves again. This is how we resist the tyranny. This is how we build resilience. This is how we gain the freedom of purpose and experience the spark of real joy!