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
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. 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.
- 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…
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.
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.)
4 thoughts on “The importance trap”
I think you are actually encouraging that Austin calls “altamirage” luck in “Chase, Chance, and Creativity.” By pursuing your idiosyncratic interests you open yourself up to new possibilities.
See for example https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/514115/
Abstract: Four kinds of luck can be defined — one that is pure “blind” luck, and three others that are influenced to some degree by certain behavioral characteristics. The term, altamirage is introduced to call attention to that special personal quality by which good luck is prompted as a result of personally distinctive actions (Chance IV). In contrast, serendipity involves finding valuable things as a result of happy accidents (Chance I), general exploratory behavior (Chance II), or saga-city (Chance III). The most novel scientific discoveries occur when several varieties of chance coincide.
That’s a very interesting classification! I like it. Thanks for bringing this to my attention