Why We Feel Busy But Can’t Seem to Get the Important Things Done

There are weeks where I sense I am very busy but yet then get discouraged that more of my critical items did not get done. Why does this happen?

A photo by Dustin Lee. unsplash.com/photos/jLwVAUtLOAQ

I had one of those recently. A couple of weeks back I posted about why I am choosing to use Todoist for managing all the stuff that has to get done in my life, both personal items as well as vocational items.

And it was one of these weeks where, as I looked at my Todoist dashboard, I had items out there from 6 days ago, 5 days ago, 2 days ago – you get the picture. And those were just the past due pieces of my past due days. And then everything for today was just one long list that definitely needed some pruning.

And in the midst of that were several thoughts of big picture items, critical items, that were never done, where I was thinking “Ugh, I really need to start this…this week. I cannot let this go untouched again. Why did this not get completed?”

Mix in crises that demand my attention, day-to-day maintenance “stuff,” and interruptions, and the day and the week can get away from me quickly.

Having weeks like that? Would you like a solution?

Well, there is better thinking available. Because that is where it starts – with my thinking and not with my doing. If I do not understand why this happens to me, there is really no chance that I will do differently.

There are two steps to this solution: the first is a realization of why the problem exists, and the second is an ownership of how the problem is resolved.

The realization of why the problem exists

As I mentioned in last week’s post, The Danger in Being Efficient With People, I am working through Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. In his chapter on putting first things first, he discusses how items in our day get perceived by us. All of our to-do’s are described by both their sense of urgency as well as their importance.

Below is a matrix that helps to visualize this.

Screen Shot 2016-08-21 at 8.55.14 AM

Though there are four quadrants, there is only one where I want my focus to be longterm, and that is Quadrant 2, where items are important but not urgent. And this is the tough quadrant because, though important, these activities are not urgent, so it seems I just never get around to doing them. 

Quadrants 1 and 3 are urgent, so they demand my attention right now. And in frequently giving my time to the right now, I fail to deal with long range thinking because…well…it just is not pressing on me. It is not urgent.

My challenge is that my week can feel overrun with those things that are urgent, whether they are important or not. And though I have to be ready for Quadrant 1 in my life, I cannot live there.

In a word…burnout.

Quadrant 3 ends up sucking time because that is the “feeling busy” quadrant. They are urgent but yet not always important. And because things that are urgent feel urgent, if not careful, they can supersede principled living.

Quadrant 4? Well, these are things I turn to when I don’t want to do what I should be doing. They are time fillers.

If I am going to be a leader that benefits my company and those around me, I need to be focusing on Quadrant 2 so that I am involving myself with change that is going to successfully move my stewardship forward. And when you or I have weeks where we feel as if we really did not “get much done,” we are typically referring to Quadrant 2 responsibilities not happening.

I did not realize that this was my modus operandi until I could visualize it with the chart above. It provided clarity as to why I feel less than successful in a week but yet also knew I was “super busy.” It was helpful to have to work through this process for myself.

So what do you do to fix this?

The ownership of how the problem is solved

There is a progression of personal management that had to be owned by me before I could see how to alleviate this recurring issue. And it involves understanding the four waves of time management.

This ownership is a key step because unless I own my current state I will never be able to move to a better place.

The first wave is characterized by lists with all of my to-do’s for any given day. “Here is what needs to get done and here is what I will get done. Check it off.” It is simply a recognition of the demands placed upon me and that I have to do something with them.

Helpful but not essential.

The second wave is a slight progression from the first but still falls short. It includes the lists of the first but also includes the ability to schedule out priorities by looking ahead and mapping out the events and activities on my calendar that are coming at me.

Good but not great.

The third wave of personal management includes the prior two but now adds the concept of prioritization and planning. In other words, I look at what I need to get done and work into that a sense of clarifying what is most important as compared to the other items that I am considering. In this third stage, there is goal setting as well as daily planning, gaining a sense of what I know lies ahead for the next day.

Better but not best.

I feel like I often attain to this third wave of personal management. But the problem that I continued to experience was not in what it could do but what it could not do. The challenge that I experienced was that this level of self-management really only effectively addresses those activities in Quadrants 1 and 3. By logical extension, this meant that the void I was feeling was the absence of having intentionally worked on Quadrant 2 activities. 

I am finding, for my leadership and personal management to be most effective, that my thinking needs to cross one more chasm. And that is into this fourth generation of personal management.

If you look at the matrix above, what separates quadrants is urgency and importance. If I am to be living more in a Quadrant 2 mindset, I have to be focused primarily on those things that are not demanding my attention right now (urgent) but yet also putting effort into those longer-term items that represent mission and vision for my life, i.e. those things that are important.

Crises and interruptions are going to come. That cannot be avoided. But if I am not intentional with Quadrant 2 thinking, these activities are going to be pressed out by what is immediately important

Earlier this summer I posted about the Life Plan process that I worked through. My life plan represents the most important areas of my life, where I envision each to be, and tangible steps in how I will get there. If I do not give these attention, I soon find my life in drift mode. But in attending to these categories of life this summer, I am finding that I am able to live more principle-centered than crisis-centered.

Respond versus react.

So here is how I would describe this fourth tier of personal management. It is looking at more than just today or tomorrow – it is viewing my upcoming week. It is looking at the categories of my Life Plan and asking, “What 1-2 things would move this category of my life forward this week?” In other words, I am bringing unity between the roles and goals of my life and my priorities and plans. 

It is a more people-centric approach to personal management. Most importantly, it allows me to integrate the principles and values of my life into action items built into my week, rather than giving these things hopeful leftover time after completing what are Quadrant 1 and 3 activities.

I have introduced this method into my planning and am satisfied with the results. This means more time during my weekend to structure my up-coming week in this fashion, but the benefits far outweigh the initial time investment. Each day then becomes a daily adapting to my value based decisions that I have already worked through as most important.

Going through this technique has helped me identity why it is that I feel busy some weeks but yet do not sense I have accomplished the important things.

So if you are sensing this same struggle within yourself, perhaps it is time to think different…and then do different.

Then see how you feel about your week.


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