If you were alive in the 80s, then you know The Karate Kid. Our hero, Daniel, moves across the country, doesn’t quite fit in with the new crowd, and after spending countless hours doing chores for the gardener—Wax on! Wax off! Paint the fence!—he wins the day.
My friends and I spent countless hours that summer knocking soda cans off of fences with awkward crane kicks. Occasionally, we managed to hit the can more than we hit the ground.
Daniel didn’t understand the importance of mastering wax on, wax off. He thought Miyagi was stalling or even a fraud. He felt the pressure of the deadline. He was scared. He wanted immediate results without paying the price.
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In the movies, you know that moment when the bad guy goes down with one shot and the good guy turns his attention away too soon? You know what’s going to happen. It was just a flesh wound. Now the bad guy’s back, and he’s madder than ever. Our hero could have won once and for all if he’d just kept fighting a little longer.
Quadrant 1 happens. It’s not ideal. It’s not where we want to spend our time, but it happens. When a fire breaks out, it has your attention. You need to put it out before it spreads and causes more damage.
Once the fire is out, don’t leave it at that. If you go a little further, you’ll never have to face that problem again.
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There are four Quadrants of Time Management:
- Crisis Management. When fires crop up, you need to put them out. You can’t ignore them. They won’t go away on their own without leaving significant damage.
- Growth, Actualization, and Renewal. This is where you want to spend as much time as possible. You have time to solve problems creatively and turn them into opportunities. You change things so fewer fires crop up. Your time spent offstage is rejuvenating and energizing, helping you to return to the stage stronger and more skilled.
- Gravel. Some activities don’t contribute to our goals, but they still need to be done. No matter how much you eliminate, automate, or delegate, some of it will still fall to you.
- Waste. We only have 24 precious hours in a day. When we’re in Quadrant 4, we’re wasting our time. We’re avoiding something.
We go to Quadrant 3 because we have to, Quadrant 1 because we have to now, Quadrant 2 because we want to, and Quadrant 4 because we’re trying to get away from 1–3.
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Do you ever feel frustrated that you didn’t get everything done on your list? It’s a common feeling for high achievers. We have grand ambitions for the day: Many books will be written about it, paintings will be painted to capture it, and statues carved to immortalize it. Songs will be sung in fire-lit taverns as steely-eyed men gather ’round to tell their tales. “Where were you that day?” “Lad, I was there. I knew him.”
You may not go so far as casting the movie adaptation, but admit it—you have plans for the day. You have plans for your plans. And yet the day never goes quite the way you want it to.
It’s frustrating. We had a vision in place, a dream we were working towards, and now it feels like it will never happen.
Take a deep breath. You’ll get there, even if you have to write the books yourself.
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What were you doing one year ago today? (This question is easier to answer if you keep a journal.)
Since then, have you made any progress towards being the man you want to be? Read any good books? Switched to a more fulfilling job? Gotten out of debt? Or do your dreams seem all the farther away because here you are, a year later, and you’re no closer to living the life you dream of?
You’ve had three-hundred-sixty-five days to work on it. Eight thousand, seven hundred and sixy hours. Five hundred twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes you could have used to shape yourself into the embodiment of your personal mission statement.
Did you seize the opportunity? Or did you sacrifice the wildly important on the altar of the whimsically immediate three-hundred-sixty-five times over?
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There is an old saying, “Survey a large field, cultivate a small one.” Like many aphorisms, we don’t know who originally said it, nor the specific context. That’s also part of its strength.
Rules can be applied only in a very specific, narrow context. Principles, on the other hand, have broad application. It’s the difference between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law—when you understand the spirit, you can usually apply the letter pretty accurately, and with less memorization. It just takes judgement.
I don’t work on a farm. You probably don’t, either. But there are principles in this saying that we can apply in our daily lives. It’s just as relevant to us as it was our agrarian forefathers.
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Whatever approach you take to personal productivity, there is one common theme: identifying your most important tasks and working through them, methodically, until you’re done.
Ivy Lee coached Charles Schwab’s executives on this principle. Stephen R. Covey taught us to identify our A1 task and start there. Brian Tracy wrote about starting your day by eating the big frog on your plate.
Focusing on your most important task can be your key to having a productive day. It can also completely ruin your day. There are at least seven times you should ignore the big frog sitting at the top of your task list.
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Normally, I put on an audiobook or podcast while I’m driving. Even for short trips.
Last week, I drove home in relative silence. Instead of Cal Newport’s Deep Work, I listened to the rain hitting the car, the intermittent rub of the wipers and click of the blinkers, and the spray of the tires on the wet pavement.
Halfway home, I hit a breakthrough. Letting my mind ruminate on the problem I’d spent half the afternoon trying to solve, I made the connection. I could use something I’d stumbled across the day before to fix it.
I had to chuckle, because it perfectly demonstrated one of the challenges we face today, something I recently heard Newport talk about in an interview: we’ve forgotten how to be bored and it’s ruining our lives.
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January 1 is just another day. There’s a year behind it and a year before it. We ascribe supernatural significance to it to effect change in our lives, but if we don’t decide to we’re going to change anything, the day will go right past us. Just like the other 364.
All of the wisdom and best practices you’ve heard about setting goals are there for a reason. They work. Most change doesn’t happen by itself. It needs reinforced.
The status quo exists because we’ve developed habits, either by design or by default. If we aren’t happy with the results we’re currently getting, it’s going to take more than twelve new photos of scenic trains to evoke change. We need a decision.
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If you ask people to name a few of their favorite things about the holidays, “time with family” ranks consistently towards the top of most lists. The decorations, good food, and festive music are all the merrier when we can share them with the people who matter the most to us.
I started to write something here about technology bringing us together, but also making it easier than ever to be a wedge that drives us apart. There’s an element of truth to that, which makes it so easy and seductive to pile on the fist-shaking, technology-is-ruining-our-lives bandwagon.
Technology is an amplifier—it’s a tool that lets you do more. The problem is attention management. We don’t get the benefits of time with family—the deposits we’re trying to make can end up being severe withdrawals—unless we’re intentional about being giving them our attention, too.
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