Setting Priorities in Strange Times
In this time of quarantine amid the global health crisis, people I have spoken to in the past few weeks fall into one of two camps. The first is those who were craving more space, silence and time in their normal lives. The “I didn’t know how much I needed space until I got it” people. Let’s call this group the ‘grounded’. In the second camp, there are the people who are now juggling far more demands, less space, less time, and more mental stress. The “I'm losing my mind and want to auction off my family” people. Let’s call this group the ‘strained’. For the grounded, this has been a time of reflection, of slowing down and pausing to consider their lives from a different perspective. These are the people who are relishing the quietness on the streets outside, the joy of a commute-less work day, the necessity of unfilled time and a newfound appreciation for the simple things in life. For them, this period is a time to reevaluate and plan for a different future, or career, or way of life when all this is over. It’s difficult to know how to manage their time each day, and what tasks have meaning, but generally things are ticking along at a pace and space that suits them and they are overall feeling pretty content (at least more days than not). Plus, their gardens have really never been in better shape. For the strained, they are managing childcare, mortgages, businesses, rents - they are on Zoom calls all day and teaching their children equations in the evening. Work and home life blur so they are not fully present in either, yet always reachable in both. They miss time alone with their partners or friends who are equally strained. Housework duties are a cause for argument, there just isn’t enough time or space in the day to get everything done. They feel lonely, fed up, and overwhelmed. They only wash their hair for video conferencing. Both these groups of people need to get clarity on their priorities. It's obvious why the strained need to prioritise, they need to maximise their valuable time and resources, so they can go to sleep feeling satisfied instead of panicky, mentally listing tasks for the day ahead. Everyone focuses on this group, and for good reason. They have got stuff to do today. So let's start with them. We'll come back to the grounded later.
The Strained All of you can't-take-another-day-of-this of virtual warriors, stick with me. Below is an adaptation of Eisenhower’s matrix. It was featured in Stephen R. Covey’s renowned book ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.’ Chances are, you have seen this before. But are you applying it to your weekly planning at the moment? There is nothing like sudden changes to shunt us back to our default modes of being. By spending a few minutes organising your time, you can bring more purpose, clarity and effectiveness into the week ahead.
Here’s the matrix, and a brief overview of how to fill it out. Split your page into 4 quadrants, like the image below. Fill in your tasks for the week ahead according to their importance (i.e. how much do they contribute to you reaching your goals for the week) and their urgency (this can be urgency imposed by you or others).
Box 1: DO NOW. These are deadlines that matter. Fill in all the things that will move you towards your most important goal, and need to be done now. E.g. that project in work / your child’s home-schooling / applying for that career-changing course, your core role duties for that day. If nothing else got done but these, things would continue to progress forward. These are at the top of your list.
Box 2: SCHEDULE. These are the things that really matter but do not have a deadline. Spending time organising, planning and following through will over time bring you more towards what you really want / need to achieve. Over time, this quadrant reduces the strain of quadrants 1 and 3 as you are planning and doing things that matter before they are urgent (that report is due tomorrow), or before you feel urgent about them (I just can't hack this anymore, I'm at breaking point). E.g. Starting long term projects, time to switch off your phone and be unreachable out of work hours, a dedicated time to get organised for the week ahead, a feedback session with your manager to discuss how to go about things in a more productive way, spending time with your partner / quarantine companion, doing a weekly video call with family and friends. These are next on the list, and also priorities. They matter. Schedule it in and make it happen.
Box 3: DELAY / DELEGATE / AUTOMATE. These are the very many emails or texts that convey urgency but do not actually contribute to your achieving your goals. These interruptions make you feel busy and important while you're doing them but just leave you drained and wondering how you spent your day. Delegate them if someone else can do them. If not, can they be delayed / redistributed / automated somehow? Put systems in place where necessary. A lot of the 'urgency' may come from other people, so you may need new boundaries to deal with a new work environment. Say ‘no’ when needed. Ask yourself and others - is this important for achieving our goals? Can this be done by someone else? Can this be automated / eliminated / reduced? E.g. emails, simple tasks that could be shared / done by someone else, being distracted by countless phone notifications, that colleague who needs more than you can give right now, etc.
Box 4: CANCEL / ELIMINATE. This box is for the things you do on default because they once worked, or because they have immediate rewards but do not contribute to your goals long term.
E.g. mindlessly scrolling on social media, watching TV until 1am to numb out the day, comfort eating, etc. Often when we are feeling stressed, we go into 'freeze' mode or seek to numb out our feelings. Those behaviours might be showing up here. Is there another way you can schedule in ways of managing your health and mental health in ways that enrich your life? Can you build up these methods and add them to quadrant 2 to prevent your quadrant 4 from becoming your go-to for stress management?
When you're finished step back, and commit to sticking this somewhere you see it often during the day. Keep coming back to quadrants 1 and 2.
Now, let's come back to our grounded people. You may not think you need to prioritise right now. It's a time where (finally) things are slower, and you're in fact loving not having to prioritise one goddamned thing. But... if you don't take the time now to get clarity on your priorities in life - when will you? Now is the time to step back and see things clearly. To ask yourself what really matters to you. To find out, or rediscover what makes you feel delighted with what you have completed in a day. To decide how your life will look in the new normal ahead. To design a different mindset, or routine, or way of being in each day. Complete the Eisenhower Matrix with a strong focus on quadrant 2. Likely there are many things that are important to you, but little urgency in getting them done. This quadrant could be the difference in you returning to a life you love, or returning to the same over-stretched Groundhog Day you so badly wanted space from. By spending time in quadrant 2 during lockdown, you could design a life that reflects your true self. Your values, your beliefs, the ways you want to impact the world and your community. Now is your time.
There is so much out of our control at the moment. We are all grappling with the unknown and handling it in different ways. Most feel uncertain about the future, our finances, our careers. What we can control, however, is how we spend our time. How we spend our time will greatly determine our mental, emotional, and physical health, our career and our relationships. Looking forward to hearing how you get on. With warmth, Laura