The importance trap

Doing unimportant things makes you lucky

“When I got tired, I slept. When I got hungry, I ate. When I had to go, you know, I went.”
– Forrest Gump

Here’s a famous 2-by-2 matrix.

This “Eisenhower matrix” says to sort your activities into four quadrants and then handle them accordingly. This maximizes your productivity, and it’s important to avoid the “urgency trap” of being so caught up in Quadrants I and III that Quadrant II is forgotten.

Quadrant II, nonurgent and important, is needed because it improves your long-term effectiveness. Going to a networking event or industry conference, growing your professional network on Linkedin, having informational interviews with experts in your field, and getting an MBA at a top school are examples of Quadrant II activities.

Quadrant II isn’t enough

Spending all of your time on Quadrants I and III is bad, but I disagree that we should eliminate Quadrant IV. Ambitious people should be spending much more of their time in Quadrant IV.

Examples of such activities would be:

  • Playing a musical instrument
  • Emailing people you don’t know to strike up a conversation
  • Cooking food
  • Blogging

These may seem frivolous, but Quadrant IV is actually a useful complement to Quadrant II.

Quadrant II builds up your existing strengths, while Quadrant IV exposes you to new abilities and trains you in less immediately needed skills. These “unimportant” activities are chosen by your subconscious. Your subconscious knows what you need.[1] Your conscious brain is much worse than your subconscious at identifying and prioritizing, because it’s too busy thinking of Quadrant II things. That’s why Quadrant IV activities invariably turn out to be useful, even though it doesn’t look like it when you’re doing them.[2]

Consider…

  • Is playing a musical instrument pointless, or will it improve your emotional stability?
  • Is emailing a stranger a waste of time, or could it open doors you didn’t even know about?
  • Is cooking your own food inefficient, or does it train you in continuous improvement?
  • Is blogging stupid in 2021? Maybe…

Serendipity

Here’s what the decision matrix should actually be like:

Over time, nonurgent and unimportant activities create serendipity; serendipity happens when an opportunity arises and you have the ability to take advantage of it. Time spent in Quadrant IV massively increases the chances that you have the combination of skills and circumstance needed to grasp the opportunity.[3]

If you feel like your achievements aren’t proportional to your hard work, consider whether you need more Quadrant IV in your life. As the famous phrase goes, “The peerless samurai walks the path of hardship, the light-hearted fool walks the path of providence.”

(This blogpost was inspired by a tweet from Venkatesh Rao.)


[1] An important caveat: to benefit from Quadrant IV activities, you must avoid superstimuli. Examples of superstimuli are heroin, video games, junk food. Superstimuli will hijack your subconscious and you won’t get serendipity.
[2] This is also why advice like “cold email one person a day if you want to build a great network” is useless; it’s forcing Quadrant IV activities into Quadrant II, and overruling your subconscious.
[3] A personal anecdote: serendipity arising from Quadrant IV activity has massively improved my life. I’ve spent significant amounts of time playing competitive games, reading about rationality and effective altruism, emailing strangers to chat about things I was interested in, and blogging and writing. These “unimportant” activities have led to deep friendships, career transformations and monetary blessings many years down the line.

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