It’s 2007 and I’m working in an office. Sandwich vendor in the foyer at lunch time. Grey carpet, fluorescent lights, windows stuck shut. I applied for this job because working in Special Educational Needs sounded like I’d be making a difference. I have no idea how to find freedom from the cage I’m working in.
I wanted to use my mind and energy, and the privilege I’d grown up and graduated with, to help vulnerable children. To change the system from the inside. Instead, I am working in a grey office, and I am surrounded by files. Cardboard-shelled wodges of paper containing papers and numbers and targets and forms. I am answering the phone to stressed parents and hard working teachers and searching for the information they need in these hundreds of files, stacked on huge shelves, piled on my desk and in my in tray, locked in tall cupboards overnight.
I’m overwhelmed. I have weekly one to one meetings with well-meaning managers who are all resilient women. They came here to make a difference too. They know what it feels like to feel as though you’re drowning, as though there’s no point. They are here to help me keep my head above water and keep going.
An introduction to the matrix
Anita takes a piece of paper and draws a cross on it. “This is what you have in your inbox” she tells me. This is how we divide up the way I spend my time.
In the top left hand corner she writes “URGENT / NOT IMPORTANT”.
Below that, “NOT IMPORTANT / NOT URGENT”. In Local Government land, this is code for “Never going to get done”.
Next to that is “IMPORTANT /NOT URGENT”
In the top right hand corner are the words “URGENT / IMPORTANT”. These are the phonecalls. The solicitor’s letters. The statutory deadlines. This is where I will spend most of my time, in that particular job.
Years later I learn that this is known as “President Eisenhower’s matrix” because this is how, apparently, the president triaged his in-tray. It’s effective, if you have too much to do and want to be sure you’re using your time in the most efficient way; it remains my go-to lens through which to examine my to-do list and allocate time in my day.
They’re logical categories, after all – it’s urgent I feed myself. It’s urgent I meet a deadline I’ve promised to a client. I answer your email, I return your call.
And yet eventually, that matrix becomes a cage of its own. Because it pushes us to the thing that’s clamouring loudest. It asks us to evaluate what cannot be measured – the wonder, the brilliance, the intangible essence of our lives.
How to break free
Slowing down goes against the grain of the matrix because it puts off moving to the next quarter. And yet I believe that stepping out of the productivity grind, lifting our heads up from the lists and actions and tasks, is exactly what we must do in order to reconnect to the deeper rhythms of who we are and how we respond to the changes in the natural world.
Spending time with nature, and really paying attention to the environment we live in is not something that ever really feels urgent. Once we’re past the thrill of an occasional snow day, or the allure of skipping work to spend time on the hottest day of summer, we don’t tend to put “going outside and feeling where we are in the year” on the top of our list. After all, what do we have to show for that time? It’s hard to point to a result from doing, essentially, nothing.
What’s easier, perhaps, is to point to the results of not doing that. What happens when we stay within the matrix? When we don’t ever stop doing the most urgent, the most important things?
I can only speak, of course, from my experience.
The stress I felt, when every day I worked all day and every day the list of tasks grew longer. (The seasons tell us you don’t have to push change. It arrives effortlessly, naturally, in it’s own time)
The anxiety I battled, feeling such responsibility for how I spent each second of my time. (You don’t have to force new things into being, or make yourself let go of what’s not working. Let those tides ebb and flow as they want to)
The feeling that I’d never be done. Never be finished. Never be enough. (Summer’s ending because Autumn’s here. No deadline. No ‘preparing to launch’. Just gradually, simply, dissolving into what’s next.
The matrix shifts
Productivity’s important, until one day it won’t be. Until we’ll reach the end of our lives and look back – and I wonder what we’d assign to each quarter then?
Knowing that, I’ve created Release | Receive: A mindful journey through the coming season. An online experience designed to start us where we are, to root us in this season, and to see what unfolds this year as we transition from summer into winter.
It probably isn’t the most urgent thing on your to-do list today.
The question I’m asking is – could it be the most important?
The course runs from 21 September – 22 December, from equinox to solstice, and registration is now open!
To book your place, >>>> click here.
I can’t wait to share this with you – the joy of being truly present; the deep relief of, finally and fully, stepping out of the matrix. To break free.