My first “real job,” as my father called it, was a marketing position in a telecommunications company, back in the days when AT&T was still a monopoly and we were all thrilled with the novelty of AOL and email.

I wrote marketing flyers and customer letters, teaching myself how to use WordPerfect, PageMaker and FileMaker Pro along the way. In the beginning, I saw that job as a temporary station, a way to earn money until I went to graduate school and earned my MFA.

Instead, I got hooked in the work. I enjoyed the people I worked with, and I enjoyed the process of traveling, learning, and mastering new skills.

As I began to embrace the world of corporate work, I started acquiring some of the required tools: a Filofax (much sexier than a Day Runner), a good pen, clothes from Ann Taylor, some desk ornaments, and a copy of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change, by Stephen Covey, which was, at the time, only a few years old and wildly popular.

I’ve written before, many times, about my enduring affection for this book — or, perhaps, for the ideas in the book. If I could give only one book to any young, ambitious person, it would be this book, though I’d be clear to point out that the writing and examples are dated and out of touch.

The concepts, though, are solid. Whenever I feel off track or slipping in my work, the 7 Habits framework is where I’ll most often turn to get things back in order.

The most useful habit, when things feel too loose and out of whack, is habit 3: “Put First Things First.”

The Eisenhower Matrix for prioritizing work

It’s in the section for Habit 3 that Covey uses the Eisenhower Matrix I referenced yesterday. (Look! I drew you a prettier, more legible 2×2 grid today!). If this matrix is new to you, or if it’s been a while since you thought about it, here’s a quick overview:

Every item on your to-do list belongs in one of the four quadrants, delineated according to Urgency and Importance.

An Urgent & Important item would be handling a surprise fire inspection, for example. Urgent & Important tasks are often unannounced and unplanned. It’s the broken water pipe, a sudden emergency that takes a colleague away from critical work, et cetera. An alternate label for this quadrant is “Do.”

An Urgent but Not Important item would be something time sensitive but not important for you to handle directly — emails, letters, calls, reports that have deadlines but that can be delegated, which is why this quadrant is sometimes labeled “Delegate.”

An Important but Not Urgent item might be writing a project plan, providing additional training or support for a new colleague, learning a new skill that will lead to better job performance, calling a brainstorming meeting, and so on. This quadrant is where the big, juicy, productive, innovative, good stuff lives. Time spent in this quadrant has, as the lingo would have it, a multiplier effect. Alternative names for this quadrant are “Decide” and “Plan.”

The bottom quadrant, Not Important and Not Urgent, is for time-wasters. If you asked the official Covey people, they might say this quadrant is where Wordle goes. Ditto casual lunch with colleagues. Yeah, we’re coming back to this quadrant. First, a quick story.

I got that marketing job, my first “real” job, as a promotion from the secretarial pool. Yes, I know that’s not what it’s called now. I’m just telling you what it was called then.

Anyway, I was promoted from secretary to marketing specialist, and instead of having a desk in a big, open, shared area with lots of other desks (and secretaries), I got my own cubicle in another part of the building. The next step up would be a private office one day, so I started paying attention to that process, looking at how people decorated/utilized their cubicles compared to the way they decorated their private offices.

One of the cubicles near me had a sign pinned to the entrance that read: Failure to Plan on Your Part Does Not Constitute An Emergency on My Part.

I’ve given a fair amount of thought, over the years, to that sign and to the attitude that went with it. The person who worked in that cubicle learned that phrase from a senior manager in the group, who had an office nearby. The same phrase was imprinted on a paperweight in that office. The words were identical: Failure to plan on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.

Only the person in the office used that phrase as a teaching tool, helping people learn time management skills and planning. The phrase was part warning, part invitation.

The person in the cubicle was always busy, busy, busy and used that typed message, printed on paper and pinned to the soft fabric of the cubicle wall, as a kind of barrier.

What I’ve thought about, and what’s on my mind now, is this:

Who decides what’s important? How do important and urgent factor into the relationships that make time spent at work feel either like an enjoyable part of life, or something that needs to be balanced with equal time and energy spent elsewhere?

What “Not Urgent, Not Important” things – like casual lunch with colleagues – might actually be important, for a relationship, for mental and emotional balance, for enjoyment that can’t be measured on a performance matrix?

What if the reason there’s such an outcry for better work-life balance is that the culture of “work” too often values things that are important for fiscal performance at the expense of human interdependence?


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