The urgent important matrix is an oldie but a goodie and is originally credited to US President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a pragmatist who was in control of his reactions. It is an excellent tool for each and everyone of us to add to our kit bag of strategies to deal with our world of overload and feeling overwhelmed. As I pointed out in a previous post it is ‘people’s hard wired reaction’ to respond to requests to do something either at work or outside work that causes the feelings of overwhelm, rather than the communication tool or app i.e. email, ‘Slack’, social media or whatever tool people use. This brings me to another oldie but goodie ‘The Serenity Prayer’ which at its essence reminds us that we can only change ourselves, i.e. our attitudes, beliefs and by default our ‘reactions’. If I had a $1 for every time I heard someone say – he/she/it/them/they “did this to me” then I would be extremely wealthy.
Whilst we may intellectually ‘know’ these things and I am sure most people have been introduced to the ‘urgent/important matrix at some point in their development at work and the serenity concept with one of those ‘inspirational’ videos or images that do the rounds, most of us don’t apply them. If we applied the wisdom of the Urgent/Importance Matrix to our daily lives; we would be in in control of the ‘high urgent and high important stuff'; vigilant about not letting the low importance and high urgent quadrant (other people and outside things) get to us, dump the low urgent and low importance stuff, and be mostly focused on the high important and low urgent stuff, because that is what really matters.
This is not through lack of intent or lack of knowing what we ‘should do’ to be effective, and by default feel good about our efforts. It is simple because of brain overload. Why is brain overload the problem?
Brain overload in its simplest form means that ‘brain energy or brain resources’ are stretched beyond their capacity. This is due to too much stuff to process and too many cognitive (thinking) demands at the same time, which makes us feel anxious and overwhelmed because we naturally ‘want to respond’. This pushes the brain into a state of energy depletion and we feel out of control because we know it is impossible to ‘respond to more than one thing at a time’. A simple analogy is a car with worn or misfiring spark plugs which reduces the amount of energy (fuel) available and therefore the performance of the car deteriorates. The brain is the same, it is a ‘system’ that requires a certain amount of energy to perform at its optimum. Just think about how well you perform when you are tired – not too well, and it is brain energy depletion that drives fatigue for people in sedentary roles rather than ‘body or muscle’ fatigue.
So what happens when the brain is stretched beyond its processing capacity or beyond the ‘available energy? It tries to compensate by taking short cuts, and the first thing it cuts out is the parts of the brain that take the most energy. These bits are the ‘smart bits’ the bits that make good decisions, the planning and organising bits, the memory of how similar things worked out in the past, the urgent important matrix. What does that leave? The basic bits, the reactionary bits, the low hanging fruit, like what we did before or last time we were in this situation – the habits and automatic reactionary behaviours.
How do we ‘stop this reacting so that we can access the wisdom of the urgent / important matrix and ‘knowing’ what we can change in the midst of too much stuff? We have to become aware of our own behaviours and reactions, and it is up to us. The irony is that brain overload has made this incredibly simple concept extremely difficult. Who would imagine that being aware of our own ‘reactions’ would be so hard to control.