I picked up a new productivity book titled The 5 Choices: The Path to Extraordinary Productivity (library)(Amazon). Co-written by Kory Kogon, Adam Merrill, and Leena Rinne, the book claims to address the factors compromising our ability to make great accomplishments: the overwhelming flow of decisions we have to make day to day that drain our attention and mental energy.
It is listed as a Franklin Covey book so it wasn’t surprising that the book’s advice all centered on their famous 4-box Time Matrix. While the book makes some lip service to brain chemistry and talks around concepts like ego depletion, it is not at all a science based book (which I found disappointing). Still, it is a quick read and anchors some long standing principles of productivity that are worth reiterating time to time.
Their #1 lesson seems to be
Train yourself to choose mindfully and not live reactively
As explained in Chapter 1, the “Reactive Brain” is the lower portion of the brain responsible for habitual, automatic reactions. Since it is where we house our immediate (simplest) emotions and our body’s reflexive stress response (fight or flight), it is the part of our brains that falls prey to advertising’s “low-resistance” appeals (wow! impulse buy! sounds! flashing lights! mmm hamburger! buy this! sex!). It also holds our unconscious patterns of behavior like driving on autopilot or continual habits, good or bad.
The “Thinking Brain” is how they characterize our upper portion of the brain responsible for executive function. It is where we consciously choose to direct our actions, overriding the other primitive impulses with planning, attention, self-control, and follow-through. Or as they say, “It is where we act rather than react. It is where we choose to pay attention to something in a deliberate, thoughtful way” (27). And most importantly, we can train our brain muscles to be more thoughtful and less impulsive, less primitive. While they never actually use the phrase “mindful,” they argue that conscious intention and planning can organize our lives, gain better habits, and put ourselves on the path to high productivity.
This is where the Time Matrix comes in.
If you have never encountered this before, let me briefly explain their concept of a Time Matrix. Essentially, you can break up all of your tasks into 4 types,based on their urgency (when does it need your attention) and their importance (how critical is it to complete).
Urgent, Important (I): These types FEEL like they must be done right now. If they aren’t done, there will be serious consequences.
We are quick to move on these tasks because they trigger up that emotional, stress-response in the Reactive Brain. If your day is filled with these types of tasks, you might FEEL productive but you’re on the path to burn out by spending your entire day’s worth of energy in high crisis mode. This work style is also poor for jobs that demand deep thinking or creative energy. While you “break even” in terms of input and output, it is “not a solid foundation for enduring success” (31).
Not Urgent, Important (II): These types do not feel like they must be done right now. If they aren’t done, there will be serious consequences.
This is the sweet spot where you can comfortable take charge of your work, energy, planning, and renewal. This is where you exercise your Thinking Brain (more on this section in the next post).
Urgent, Not important (III): These types FEEL like they must be done right now. But if they aren’t done, there won’t be serious consequences.
This is the worst pit of distraction. You are spinning your wheels but not actually doing anything important, filling your day with interruptions, unnecessary tasks, minor issue, unimportant filler.
Again, this quadrant is where our Reactive Brain is wired to feel a slight rush at the stress response and it can be addicting to flip through emails or check off pointless To Dos for that false sense of accomplishment. Part of the problem is that we fail to differentiate what is important and what is not – “people are confusing motion with progress, action with accomplishment” (32). So not only are you burning yourself out, you gained nothing. NEGATIVE RETURN.
Not important, Not urgent (IV): You get the picture. Total waste of tv and gossip sites and so on when we are so burned out that we come here to zone out.
A person will not spend every moment of the day in quadrant II but there should be a much better balance than what most people achieve. In our culture of business, most people are drowning in quadrants I and III before completely burning out and spending all evening in quadrant IV. The authors recommend that you stop for 10 minutes a day and 30 minutes at the start of the week to chart out your major tasks. The second half of the book gives practical suggestions on how to get better at decision-management as the first step of time, task, and life management. I’ll save those for another post.