The view from my window this week
The view from my window this week

This week some of my old anxious thought patterns and neuroses have bubbled back up to the surface, because I haven’t been following my own advice and I’ve slipped from Quadrant Two to Quadrant One behaviour. If you’ve read any books by Dr Stephen R. Covey, you’ll know what I mean by this, but to put it very simply, Covey breaks the actions we take into four quadrants:

1. Important and urgent

2. Important, but not urgent

3. Urgent, but not important

4. Not urgent, and not important

Quadrant four activity includes things like watching television, leisure activities and the like. Quadrant Three includes things that we waste a lot of time doing because they seem important, but actually are not. Things likes checking emails, rushing to answer the phone – a lot of the meetings we have fit into Quadrant Three, when in fact they could be done by phone or email.

But the most important quadrants are One and Two. Most of us spend the majority of our time in Quadrant One, tackling things that are important and urgent. There’s a lot of stress in Quadrant One, because this is where crises live, this is where firefighting occurs, and this is where we spend our time dealing with urgent things that could be avoided if only we weren’t busy dealing with all those other urgent things. We do a lot of flapping and stressing in Quadrant One – trying to find something to wear to the office when we’re already running late; stressing out because we’re spending a fortune on lunch every day because we don’t have time to make a packed lunch. When we’re in Quadrant One we’re late for work, our car breaks down more often, we lose track of whether we’ve taken our medicine today, and that hole in the roof suddenly gets big enough for water to start pouring in.

But when you start to engage in Quadrant Two activities, that’s when the magic begins to happens. The more time you spend in Quadrant Two, the less time you spend dealing with crises, stressfully flapping around, and getting yourself in a tiz.

Quadrant Two is where the important stuff happens that isn’t urgent. It is where you spend time planning, and doing things now that you’ll thank yourself for later. Quadrant Two behaviour might include putting ten minutes aside in the evening to make a packed lunch for tomorrow. It might include putting ten pounds into a savings account this week, and next week, and the week after. It might include preparing your outfit the night before so you’re not stressed in the morning. It might include planning your week so that you know when you’re going to get tired, and accounting for it with the tasks you undertake, or by factoring powernaps into your schedule. In Quadrant Two cars get serviced, while in Quadrant One cars get repaired. In Quadrant Two you put time aside to fix that hole in the roof, while in Quadrant One you’re trying to patch it up in the middle of the night, wearing your pyjamas as the rain pours in.

You can spot people who spend most of their time in Quadrant Two. They always seem prepared, cool and calm, and are always ready with any information they may need for the meeting. Quadrant Two people enjoy the spoils today of something they started a year ago, or two years ago, or a decade ago. They always seem to be well groomed, they never have to run for their train, and they set their alarm five minutes earlier just in case something happens that they didn’t plan for.

Over the last couple of years I’ve been trying to move myself from Quadrant One to Quadrant Two. It may sound like a lot of effort, but spending time in Quadrant Two is much less stressful than living in Quadrant One. In Quadrant Two you do things that will help you tomorrow, or next week. You do small things today that will build into something much bigger in the future. In Quadrant Two you keep all your plates spinning because you’re prepared for anything. And being prepared is calmer, more relaxing, it’s good for your self-esteem, and it just feels like you own your life rather than it owning you.

But then something happened that I didn’t plan for, and I found myself slipping back into Quadrant One.

It snowed.

When it snows in Britain the country grinds to a halt, and this cold weather was so ferocious it had even been given a name. The newspapers called it the ‘Beast from the East’. It was all over the news, and even with all my Quadrant Two planning and smugness, I wasn’t ready for it.

You see, I’d just started a new project and I was commuting from my home in the countryside to the city every day. I was still in that phase where I had yet to earn the trust of the people who had high expectations of me, so I was working hard to make sure that they weren’t disappointed.

But then freak weather forced the train companies to run a reduced service which caused me to arrive at the office late, and to have to leave early. I was still putting in the hours, working in the evening and on the train, but I was worried that I was leaving a bad impression, even though the work was still getting done.

And it spilled over into my home life, too. My house is heated by oil, and it was running low. I had been waiting to get paid at the new job so I could buy a delivery of heating oil, but payday coincided with the arrival of the cold weather. And what happens when it gets freakishly cold? Everyone panics and orders heating oil. The price goes sky high, and the delivery waiting lists get longer, and longer.

I wasn’t prepared, and suddenly I found myself back in Quadrant One, firefighting. But even worse, I was acting like I was in Quadrant One. I was apologising a lot, asking for permission, no longer taking the initiative or having faith in myself to do what I had to do in order to get the job done. I was incredibly worried about how I was appearing, what people thought of me, and I was projecting my own insecurities and fears onto other people and the situation. I was being nervous and anxious rather than calm and confident.

I had fallen off the wagon.

Thank goodness the weekend arrived just in time, to give me a chance to pause and take a breath. To step back and take a look at the situation, and to ask myself the question:

“What do you do when you fall off the wagon?”

There are three thoughts and actions that I find incredibly useful when things don’t go to plan and I find myself firefighting again. One of them is a quote by (depending who you ask) either Paul Coelho, Fernando Sabino, John Lennon or Oscar Wild:

“Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.”

It’s a very popular quote, and chances are you’ve already heard it used in a film, or you’ll have seen it on one of those inspirational Instagram feeds, but it rings true for me. Even when the worst happens, as long as I’m not dead, it’s not the end. As long as I haven’t been squashed by a falling piano or somehow otherwise been pushed off this mortal coil into the next life, then it’s not the end. There’s still time. Most things can be fixed, most bad situations don’t last forever, and there’s always an opportunity to repair things and make them better.

The second thing that I have found incredibly useful is a sort of visualisation technique that I have used when I’ve needed to put aside my natural anxieties and step up to the mark. I’ve used it in job interviews, in presentations and anywhere where I would naturally prefer to curl up into a ball and hide under my desk. I imagine what a version of me who successfully “brings it” in that situation would look like. What would that version of me do and say? How would that version of me behave? How would they step up?

And then I become that person. I step up, and I bring it. Stuff gets done and things go well.

When the cold snap hit I became indecisive. I should have already ordered the fuel oil and put it on my credit card, to pay it off later. I had all the tools I needed to work from home, but instead of just making a decision to do that, I worried about what people would think and so chose to struggle to get in to the office, putting myself at the mercy of the weather and the railway companies, and ultimately ended up probably looking a lot worse than I would have done had I stayed calm and just got the work done from next to my fireplace. I was in Quadrant One, and acting like it. Flapping, disorganised and not completely calm and collected. I should have taken a moment, asked myself what ‘Quadrant Two Chris’ would have done, and then done that.

And the third thing is to remember that we’re all human, and we can’t be perfect all the time. We’re not robots, we can’t plan for everything, otherwise we’d have to pull trailers behind us filled with first aid kits, camping stoves, our entire wardrobe, food for a month, a portable internet hub, phrasebooks for every language… everything you could possibly need for any possible eventuality.

But we can’t do that. We can’t plan for everything. We must accept that no matter how much we enjoy living in Quadrant Two, there will be times where we get knocked out of it, and we’ll have to climb back in. And when we do, we need to bring back learnings with us, so we can be more able to cope the next time we get knocked for six like this. Because there will be a next time, and the way we respond to it is where our power lies.

Self-awareness is key to this, but often we don’t realise we’re back in Quadrant One until we’ve been there for a while already. Just think of what Quadrant Two You would do, how they would behave, and do that.

Because Quadrant Two You is still you, after all.

Originally published at