It’s 1996, and I’m in the chip shop buying Friday night’s dinner (Haddock and chips for me, Huss and chips for my wife).
Waiting for them to cook my food, I flick through yesterday’s copy of a tabloid newspaper glancing occasionally towards the tiny portable television in the corner with the volume turned down so that the radio is just audible above the bright sizzle of the fryer.
The song playing isn’t one I know, but it’s super catchy, and I like it.
When it ends, I strain to catch the title, but all I get is what sounds like “The Mockingbirds”.
They wrap my food, having liberally doused everything in salt and vinegar, and I set off past the home brewing shop and the post office, the place I bought my first ever packet of cigarettes (ten Number 6) one cold winter’s evening before stuffing them into my jacket, riding home on my bike, and stashing them in a box with my model cars shoved under the bed.
I couldn’t get the song out of my head, but it was 1996. No “Google” or “Shazam”. I wrote what I knew (nothing) on a scrap of paper and, the next morning, went traipsing around the record shops in town trying to find the name of this mystery song by The Mockingbirds.
In a notebook this week I found a scribbled version of what I now know as “The Eisenhower Matrix”.
If you’re unfamiliar with this famous productivity tool, it exists to help you prioritise your tasks according to their urgency and importance so that you can, presumably, get more done.
If a task is both “urgent” and “important”, for example, your house is on fire, the matrix suggests you might want to get on and deal with it immediately.
If a task is neither urgent nor important, for example, reading the random thoughts of a stranger on Substack, it suggests that you might be better off spending your valuable time elsewhere.
You get the idea.
Much that is written about productivity often appears to be aimed at helping us trick ourselves into the relentless pursuit of achievement.
If anxiety is one of the most widespread issues that brings people into therapy (it is) then “burnout” isn’t far behind. So if being more productive serves only to help us become more productive still, it’s no wonder that we’re crashing and burning as a consequence of chasing a neverending list of tasks.
In 2011, palliative nurse Bronnie Ware wrote a book called “Top Five Regrets Of The Dying” and discovered that time after time people nearing the end of their lives expressed remarkably similar sources of regret.
Staying in touch with friends, allowing themselves to be happier, expressing their feelings openly, and being their true selves were all realisations that came painfully late.
The other most common regret was, “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”
As far as I can ascertain, nobody uttered the words, “I wish I’d spent more time in the office,” to Bronnie Ware.
The top right quadrant on the Eisenhower matrix is for tasks that are important but not urgent, but when I looked at the rough grid in my old notebook I noticed something that made me feel sad for the younger version of myself.
The quadrants dealing with the other three boxes were quite specific. For example,
“Not Urgent & Not Important”
Watch YouTube videos of people falling over.
“Urgent & Important”
Submit tax return.
“Urgent but Not Important”
I’d written “emails” in here, so I apologise if you’ve been waiting for a response from me since the beginning of the century.
In the “Important but Not Urgent” box I’d lost my ability to be specific and written, “Idea generation” and “Project work,” both of which sound dull and impossible to define. It was as if I knew that they mattered but had never spent enough time understanding why.
Over the years I’ve learned to think of the Eisenhower matrix and productivity in general, differently. Surely the real benefit of dealing with obligations and responsibilities more quickly and efficiently is that it frees up time for all the other stuff that makes me feel happy to be alive. The things in the “Important but Not Urgent” quadrant. The box where our dreams reside.
I don’t make space in my life so that I can crash through a heap more tasks. I do it so that I can drink coffee slowly, bake good bread, go on very long rambles with the dogs, lie in a hammock listening to the blackbirds, read books, and find new chords on the guitar.
While we’re on the subject of matrices and diagrams, a very good therapist once drew a picture for me illustrating the important difference between physical and emotional growth.
The line representing our physical bodies always inclines, peaks and declines. The shape of your line will be different from mine, but we’re all going to deteriorate to the point that we are left only to reflect on the way we chose to spend the incredibly short time we were given. The line representing emotional growth, assuming no significant cognitive impairment, can just keep going up until we take our final breath.
There is no reason for us to stop developing emotionally, intellectually and spiritually if we choose to engage in the pursuits that enrich us and make us feel joyful to be alive. If I want to know what those pursuits are, I’d better spend a good proportion of my time in that fourth quadrant, where everything is important despite not being urgent.
Less than a year after I’d heard the song in the chip shop, my father died.
I’d watched him slowly decline since the day he stopped working and it became painfully apparent he had little to keep him interested in life.
He didn’t stay in touch with his brother, let alone any friends. He never expressed any deep feelings, and I rarely saw evidence of happiness. Haunted by an inability to be who he thought he was expected to be and an unwillingness to accept who he was, he withered slowly on the vine.
If my father had seen the Eisenhower matrix he would not have been able to populate the “Important & Not Urgent” quadrant and that is a truly dispiriting state of affairs that we’d all do well to avoid.
I finally discovered, thanks to the lateral thinking and laudable diligence of a young man in HMV, that the song I’d heard whilst waiting for my Haddock was “Come Around” by The Mutton Birds.
I’d used an inordinate amount of my free time to track down the song and three years later my wife and I went to see them play a super low-key gig somewhere I could never find again and probably no longer exists on a rainy autumn night in Canterbury.
My wife was pregnant with our first child at the time. “I felt the baby kick tonight for the first time” my wife would tell me later that evening.
If I’d been able to whip out my phone and use an app to identify the song in seconds that night in the chip shop it wouldn’t have meant nearly as much as it eventually did, and I certainly wouldn’t have been able to get 1000 words from it.
If I can get through everything urgent and important by being more productive, “Finding the identity of random songs I hear in shops without the use of technology” feels like exactly the sort of thing I want to do with the time that I’ve saved.