Posted by: Ken Brown | August 16, 2007

First Things First

Here’s another of my favorites, First Things First. I post it mainly because I need the reminder:

My daughter was born almost a month ago, and I could easily spend all day just watching her sleep (she returns the favor by keeping me up all night).* Of course, that’s not very practical — there are more pressing concerns in life. And yet, it’s funny how easily far less important things end up filling my time. A couple weeks back, I wrote about an upcoming video game called Left Behind: Eternal Forces. Thinking about that game, and its similarities and differences to other games I own, really opened up my eyes and reminded me just how much time I waste on mindless and forgettable pursuits. I haven’t played a computer game since.

Stephen Covey (The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, First Things First, etc.) categorizes all activities into four types based on whether they are “important or not important” and “urgent or not urgent,” and urges us to analyze all our activities by these two criteria.

You might expect him to advise focusing on the “important and urgent” activities, but he actually suggests focusing on those things that are “important but not urgent,” while cutting out the “not important and not urgent” ones. The natural practice of forever focusing on what is most urgent (interspersed with “breaks” filled with meaningless activities) may seem productive, but really prevents us from controlling our overall direction in life, and cuts out all the most worthwhile pursuits. While we’re busy putting out fires left and right, we find that there’s no time left for things like poetry.

But my interest today is on those “not important and not urgent” activities. With the countless distractions modern technology has provided us, it’s easy to start to feel that we risk burnout if we fail to take time for such trivia. We get the idea that occasional breaks for sitcoms or video games actually help our productivity as a whole, and feel justified in “vegging out” every now and then.

Unfortunately, this simply isn’t true. The problem is when you start thinking you need to do these things, they steadily eat up more and more of your time, especially if — like me — you work from home. At first, maybe you can work a whole day before feeling like you need to “check out” for a half hour. Pretty soon every three hours you need an hour break. Before long, you hardly get much done even when you are working; you feel like you always need a break.

But a funny thing happens when you stop and say: I really don’t need to be playing these games in the first place. You feel really bored for a day or two, and then suddenly you find that you can be productive for longer and longer stretches without any “brain breaks” at all. I know from personal experience (and not just from the past couple weeks — though my drastically increased blogging is a product of that — but because in the past I have sworn off TV and video games for months, and saw similar results): it’s shocking how little such activities are missed once you get away from them, and how much more you can get done once they’re gone.

And the best part is: cutting out such “not important and not urgent” activities doesn’t just let you be more effective at accomplishing the urgent activities, it also (and primarily) frees up your time for all those (“important but not urgent”) things that you always want to do, but never find the time for. When you cut out meaningless leisure activities, you suddenly have the freedom to pursue the ones that are truly satisfying: hobbies, sports, viewing/reading/listening to art (which can include good movies and television, though it probably can’t justify an afternoon of Friends reruns), deep thinking and reading, meaningful conversation and — my personal favorite –- watching your baby girl sleep.

*This was first written last June; my daughter is now 15 months, and while she no longer keeps me up at night, she’s still a wonderful distraction.

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