“You have the same 24 hours a day as every human who has ever lived. Why is it that some people seem to accomplish more in their 24 hours than others do in a lifetime?”
Edwin C. Bliss altered the course of my life when he posed that question in his time-management seminar (based on his book "Getting Things Done") four decades ago. I listened intently as he explained the need to prioritize goals and tasks using the Time-Management Matrix (popularized by Stephen R. Covey’s "7 Habits of Highly Effective People a decade later).*
Like millions, I was fascinated with the four-quadrant model, especially Quadrant 2: items from your to-do list that are important but not urgent. I was convinced that if I focused on Quadrant 2 activities, I’d maximize my productivity and find myself spending less time putting out the fires in Quadrant 1: important items that had been neglected and become urgent.
It wasn't as easy as I thought it would be
As soon as I put the four-quadrant model into practice, I had a major challenge. I didn’t know what was important! I was in a quandary (no pun intended) about which items on my to-do list belonged in Quadrant 2. I was so used to putting out fires that I’d never considered the criteria for what’s important. Covey’s insights helped by relating to-do items to results, relationships, a personal mission, and values.
Today, my approach to managing priorities and energy has evolved with revelations from motivation science. My insights might not be as inspiring to you as Bliss and Covey were for me, but I hope you might find wisdom in this updated approach to determining what to focus on first.
The evolution of managing priorities and energy
Three foundational needs for choice, connection and competence are required for you to thrive -- and they are at the heart of generating the positive energy to be effective, productive and healthy. But how do they help you manage your priorities?
1. Create choice by reframing your to-do list into a list of choices
The simple act of listing an item as a choice shifts your mindset from “I have to do it” to “I’m choosing to do it.” Someone or something may be compelling an item to be on your list, but only you can choose to do it.
2. Evaluate each of your to-do items (choices) based on how it creates connection and competence
When Covey encouraged self-awareness of our purpose, roles (relationships), goals and values, he was tapping into our foundational need for connection. When you create connection, you create meaning. You recognize how good it feels to contribute to something greater than yourself. Your sense of belonging and experiencing genuine relationships generate positive energy.
(If the coronavirus has taught us anything, it’s that our greatest consolation and source of commitment to guidelines to prevent the spread is that we’re all in it together -- the ultimate source of connection.)
Recognizing when a choice also creates connection is powerful. So is understanding when a choice creates competence by enabling you to learn and grow. When you create competence, you notice the progress you’re making on a goal, or you take solace in learning something new that will help you deal with a world full of uncertainty.
Creating competence leads to resilience. If you struggle to cope with the ambiguity of the future, creating competence is your antidote.
3. Schedule your day with the to-do items with the greatest potential to create choice, connection and competence. Take 30 to 60 minutes to schedule something special and fulfilling.
I am fortunate to have applied the combination of the four-quadrant time-management model and the three truths of motivation science long enough that it’s become almost second nature. But I still find it helpful -- and fun -- to map out a little grid when the going gets tough (as it has in recent weeks).
Today, I put the following items on my list and evaluated them.
Based on my grid, I scheduled completion of this blog, a workout (because I create connection when I walk with my husband and competence by improving the functioning of an artificial knee), and sending the Zoom invites to my family (that I should have done earlier and realized is really important to me). I also scheduled 30 to 60 minutes to work on work on something special—the new motivation conversation course.
This doesn’t mean I won’t play Toon Blast, post on LinkedIn, work on my closet or vacuum my house. It simply means that I made time for the items that create choice, connection and competence. I’ll throw other stuff into the day as time and energy allow.
What if you have an item on your list that’s creating angst because of time or external pressure? Then reverse the process. Ask yourself: How could this to-do item help me create choice, connection, and competence?
Find a way to create connection by aligning the item to your values or how you can extract meaning from it. Investigate ways to create competence by recognizing what you can learn. Maybe you’ll learn not to agree to doing it in the future. Maybe you’ll learn to put it in Quadrant 2 next time so you won’t be put under pressure when it migrates to Quadrant 1.
I hope this evolution of applying motivation science to energy management helps you proactively structure your day and experience the optimal motivation needed to thrive. Taking 24 hours to consider how your to-do list can create choice, connection and competence reminds you how every day is worth living!
*Covey’s book came out almost 10 years after Bliss’s book and seminar. Both men have passed on, so I may never know where the four-quadrant time-management model originated, but I’m grateful to both for bringing attention to what’s most important in my life. And I’m grateful to motivation science for helping the model evolve.
Susan Fowler is on a mission to help you learn the skill of motivation. In her latest book, "Master Your Motivation: Three Scientific Truths for Achieving Your Goals," she presents an evolutionary idea: motivation is a skill. Providing real-world examples and empirical evidence, Fowler teaches you how to achieve your goals and flourish as you succeed. She is also the author of bylined articles, peer-reviewed research, and eight books, including the best-selling "Self Leadership and The One Minute Manager" with Ken Blanchard and "Why Motivating People Doesn't Work ... And What Does: The New Science of Leading, Engaging, and Energizing." Tens of thousands of people worldwide have learned from her ideas through training programs. For more information, visit SusanFowler.com.