I ended up in a conversation with a colleague recently who brought up both Maslow’s Hierarchy and Stephen Covey’s time management quadrant from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Even if you’re unfamiliar with the habits, you’d still probably recognize his categorization of priorities.
Imagine a quadrant which divided activities based on two criteria: importance and urgency. What you’d have would be the following:
Quadrant I—Urgent and important: a critical due date, a personal crisis, a major event. You can’t avoid this stuff: if you don’t do this, you fail at something crucial.
Quadrant II—Important but not urgent: exercise, reading, personal relationships. These are usually the things you should be doing regularly, if not every day, but because you don’t have to do them, they often get put off.
Quadrant III—Urgent but not important: most email (depending on your viewpoint), most meetings (depending on your viewpoint), almost all telephone calls (if you’re a curmudgeon like me). You resent these tasks the most because they’re not important, but they also seemingly have to be dealt with, meaning that they keep you from doing either the Quadrant II things you feel like you should be doing, and the Quadrant IV things that you would do, if you were given the chance to procrastinate.
Quadrant IV—Not urgent and not important: most social media, trivialities, things you do to procrastinate, or else things you do to idle your time away that aren’t as meaningful in the long term as Quadrant II activities.
I realized partway through the conversation that the point system I comprised for myself consisted almost in its entirety of Quadrant II items (with the occasional Quadrant I). Which was, of course, its intended purpose: you don’t get to reward yourself for doing unimportant things.
It also occurred to me that most of these things I gave myself to do fit into the top-most level of Maslow’s Hierarchy: that of self-actualization.
If Quadrant I is made up of mostly the lower levels of the Hierarchy (ie: fail criteria—if you don’t do these you lose), then it also makes sense that the higher levels are ones you only attain through the long-term dedication to the important things you don’t technically have to do, but dedicate time to anyway.
Covey says that many people spend time in Quadrant IV when they could be in Quadrant II because Quadrants I and III have worn them out so much over the course of the day. But I find my own situation is often quite different. It looks like this:
I want to spend my day doing Quadrant II activities, but I need to get Quadrant I done first in order to survive. But instead of doing Quadrant I, I start to procrastinate with Quadrant IV.
What if we thought about procrastination differently? What if we harnessed the power of procrastination toward being more productive? What if we could procrastinate by doing the work we want to do rather than the work we should do?
In other words, given that I can obviously waste a whole hour on Buzzfeed articles before actually doing that Quadrant I activity I’m meant to be doing, what if I spent that time doing Quadrant II stuff? As long as I am going to procrastinate until the exact moment at which I must absolutely go do the work which I am meant to be doing or else fail at life, why not harness that procrastination toward something excellent instead of denying myself that excellent thing because of the duty I will shirk anyway?
And if I’m still doing important work that is worthwhile even if it isn’t urgent, am I even procrastinating? Or just being wiser about how I spend my time?