The Important but Not Urgent
The Important but Not Urgent
Steve Pao
December 22, 2020
Trying to do deep work with your Slack client open is the cognitive equivalent of trying to eat healthy while dining in a pastry shop. —Unattributed

In one of my previous articles, I discussed the need for individuals to start adopting and guiding new habits for remote work but did not yet get prescriptive about the areas to focus on.  In this article, I'd like to focus on one area in particular — the important but not urgent.

In his best-selling book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey described the Eisenhower Matrix.  In this construct, the upper left quadrant consists of urgent and important issues which always get done, including our project deadlines and customer escalations.  During a global pandemic, we have demonstrated our continued ability to adapt and get these tasks done.

Tools including Slack, Zoom, and Microsoft Teams have enabled us as remote workers to stay up-to-date on what others are doing, coordinate, and facilitate the kinds of social conversations that can happen in the physical workplace.  Even before the pandemic, an article from May 2019 titled "The productivity pit: how Slack is ruining work" described how many of us have adopted these tools to the extreme of living our workdays in our tools.  While in some cases, we have been handling urgent and important issues, a side effect is that we've also gotten quite effective at handling urgent and not important issues.

Eisenhower Matrix

What has suffered?  The important but not urgent tasks, often requiring deep work.  In all of our conversations with remote workers across spectrums, we hear how many remote workers have gotten very reactive,  with less emphasis on the non-urgent, including planning, ideation to seize new opportunities, and proactive work to prevent future problems.  The reason is that much of the usage of our current technology tool set, including attending lots of "readout" meetings over Zoom designed to tie remote teams together or being "always on" in Slack, revolves around the urgent.

Our position is that these behaviors shouldn't disappear but rather should be measured, evaluated, and balanced with similar measures on deep work.  As one of our starting points, we've been further exploring focus time, which explicitly involves exercising self-control (a deeply-studied social sciences concept) to avoid the multi-tasking inherently involved in our "always on" Slack and email presence to instead focus on deep work.

It's not surprising that we default to this behavior, particularly in remote work environments.  On the one hand is a desire to show our co-workers and our managers that we are, in fact, working.  On the other hand, we are products of our own evolution.  Even though humans are not particularly good at multi-tasking, foraging theory postulates that modern humans are informavores and that we seek information the way animals seek food.  The richness of the Slack ecosystem provides close proximity to new opportunities for mental stimulation.  Sitting down to focus on deep work that is important but not urgent requires self-control in the workplace.

Even if we have established habits in our personal lives for self-control to eat well, exercise, and sleep enough, most of us have unwittingly been pretty poor at self-control in the workplace from a historical perspective.  The existing 8am-5pm workday concept was designed around an industrial-age discovery about self-control — or our lack of it.  We often forget that prior to factories or even modern offices, all of us worked at home and, as a whole, we were less productive.  Beyond the machinery, what going to a factory or an office did for us was force us to establish habits and routines  of when to get up, get dressed, and show up to work, how long to work, as well as the social and performance norms expected of us.  As an economy, we actually instituted factories and offices to control us as individuals.

Before the Industrial Revolution in Britain most workers controlled their pace, timing, and conduct at work. Factory discipline radically changed this. Employers now dictated how, when, and in what manner work was done. Why did discipline triumph? Was it required by the need to tightly coordinate workers with new technologies? Or was it successful because it coerced more effort from workers than they would freely give? The empirical evidence shows that discipline succeeded mainly by increasing work effort. Workers effectively hired capitalists to make them work harder. They lacked the self-control to achieve higher earnings on their own. (emphasis added)Gregory Clark, Professor of Economics, UC Davis, as cited in The Journal of Economic History

As our knowledge economy has proven many of these concepts are outdated, we must re-learn how to regain self-control, and much as we've done with health apps like FitBit, Google Fit, and Apple Health, we believe similar data-driven techniques can apply to self-control in the workplace.

This is why at AMPLL, one of our first concepts was not only in helping you develop a plan for your deep work (many applications do this), but also to help you measure your self-regulation to avoid unplanned collaboration through Slack and email during your focus time windows.  Like a training partner, we want to support you through coaching and nudging all along the way to help you meet your goals surrounding deep work to address the important but not urgent.

Let us know what you think!

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Steve Pao

Steve Pao is Chief Product Officer at Ampll and a member of the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, an opt-in research community of business professionals. Prior to Ampll, Steve was an early employee and product executive at two companies that did IPOs (Latitude Communications in 1999 and Barracuda Networks in 2013). Steve is a proud "empty nester" and lives in Portland, OR with his wife whom he met in 7th grade German class.

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