If you look at the Eisenhower matrix, Quadrant 1 is the quadrant of crises, where everything is urgent and important. Quadrant 2 is the quadrant where we are proactive, working on things that are important before they become urgent.
We want to spend our time in Quadrant 2, but we keep getting sucked into Quadrant 1. That’s to be expected. Fires are always going to crop up, for one reason or another.
Even in the most reactive of professions, there are ways to be proactive. Doctors preach a healthy lifestyle. Fire fighters work on fire prevention. Server administrators perform regular backups.
I asked a member of the California Highway Patrol what he does at work to be proactive. His job is largely driven by responding to Quadrant 1 crises. Did he manage to spend any time in Quadrant 2?
I was expecting him to say something about safety lectures to students or developing his skills. While he acknowledged that he does both of those things, the main thing he does to prevent an accident from ever happening is give out tickets.
Years ago, he followed a driver off the freeway and gave her a ticket for not wearing her seat belt. As you can imagine, this did not put her in a good mood. She yelled at him, accused him of trying to meet some quota, “I pay your salary!”, et cetera, et cetera. He’d heard it all before. He finished writing out the ticket and they went their separate ways.
The next morning, he had a voicemail from this driver waiting when he got in to the office. He braced himself. Apparently lots of people who get tickets will call the officer at the office and chew them out—or leave very rude messages. (I had no idea people would do that.)
She was calling to apologize and thank him. Through her tears, she related how she had been in an accident about two hours after he stopped her. She was out running errands. She had just put her seat belt on, purely out of resentment for the ticket. She was still yelling at him as she drove, still furious at him for ruining her day like that.
That was when a pickup truck ran the red light.
The officers on the scene told her the only reason she lived was because she had her seat belt on. The only reason she had her seat belt on was because she’d gottten a ticket two hours earlier. Other than a few scratches, she was fine.
Ever since, he’s tried to issue one seat belt ticket an hour. It saves lives.
This patrolman found a way to take a job that’s extremely reactive and be proactive about it.
Wearing a seat belt is a Quadrant 2 activity that can keep you out of Quadrant 1. What could be a life-threatening accident becomes simply inconvenient. You’re still going to need to deal with insurance claims and repairing or replacing your car, but if you can walk away from the accident, you just avoided a whole world of urgent-and-important work.
When you are proactive, you find ways to shift your time and attention from Quadrant 1 to Quadrant 2. You can’t stay out of Quadrant 1, especially not at first, but you can gradually reduce the amount of time you spend there.
When you find yourself dealing with a Quadrant 1 crisis, ask yourself how the crisis developed. Why didn’t you catch the problem while it was still in Quadrant 2? What do you need to do differently so that you never have to solve that problem again?
It can be highly addictive to spend our time putting out fires in Quadrant 1. There’s lots of adrenaline and dopamine involved. If we aren’t careful, we can accidentally reward people for spending time in Quadrant 1 instead of Quadrant 2, even though the costs are exponentially higher.
Rather than teaching ourselves (or our organizations) to put out fires effectively, wouldn’t it be better if the fires never started? Look for the weak points in your system that let problems escape from Quadrant 2 to Quadrant 1. The more of them you address, the less time you’ll spend putting out fires. You’ll start putting out fires before they start.
Question: Think of a time a crisis developed in Quadrant 1. What could you have done to fix it while it was still in Quadrant 2? Share your thoughts in the comments, on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook.