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The essential and the non-essential

Where We Spend Our Time

Susan R. Johnson MD, FAAP, 9/15/04

There has to be some advantage to commuting. Every other Friday I commute to the Bay Area to take my son to visit his father. As I drive back late Friday night there is a lot of time for thinking and reflection and sometimes listening to a book on tape or CD. Two weeks ago I listened to Stephen Covey’s book called "First things First". He said there are four different quadrants or categories of how we spend our time, and how we choose to spend our time depends on whether we perceive something as "Urgent" or "Not Urgent" and "Important (essential)" or "Not Important (non-essential)".

First we have the Urgent and Important quadrant. Spending time in this space is easy to figure out. There may occur a sudden illness in a family member or an injury that requires a trip to the emergency room. We may have neglected our marriage and now it is in crisis. Our child may be having tremendous difficulties in school or there is some financial catastrophe at our workplace. This category is easy to recognize and often requires our immediate response.

The next space or quadrant is often a place where we spend too much time and energy. This is the Urgent but Not Essential category. This is where other people are telling us what is urgent to them, and we are running around trying to meet their needs. In this category, we are spending our time and energy doing things that someone else, and not we, think are essential. This can happen at the work place, in our home life, or in the community. If we stay in this category too long, we can experience burn out, exhaustion, and loss of our spark for living.

Then there is the "Not Urgent and Not Important" third category. This is the place we often go when we are exhausted, and we want to vegetate and escape the stresses of our world. It might be to drink a lot of alcohol, play violent video games, or just watch a pointless movie or television show. The activities we do in this category do not nourish our body, soul, or spirit. They don’t reflect goodness, truth, or beauty. We do them just to escape our life. Often when our life is filled with the non-essential, when we can’t find meaning, we find ourselves spending too much time in this wasteland.

Finally, the fourth area in our life where we can choose to spend our time is the "Not Urgent but Important" category. This is actually an important area to spend our time, and yet we hardly find the time to be here at all. This is where we really nourish our relationships with ourself, with our children, with our partner, with our friends, with our community, and with the Divine. Taking time to go on a walk, visit a friend, play catch with our child, go dancing, sing in a choir, plant a garden, meditate, paint, sculpt, or read inspirational poetry. Because these activities aren't "Urgent", we often neglect this category, put things off, until something catastrophic happens like we get ill or a relationship falls apart. When that happens, we finally do spend the time because the situation has transported itself to the “Urgent and Important” category. Unfortunately, we then have the monumental task of healing a relationship (to ourself, our partner, our child, the Divine) that has experienced many years of neglect.

So how do we sort out what is important or what is essential in our life? Steven Covey talks about always holding up a vision for one’s life, and having separate visions for the well being of our body, our soul, and our spirit. A vision for our physical body may be to do specific things that keep our body healthy such as exercising, eating nourishing foods, and getting plenty of rest. A vision for our soul may include ways of loving ourselves and learning how to love and give to others. A vision for our spirit may have to do with our specific destiny or path, our purpose for living. So all one needs to do is spend time looking at the visions one has for body, soul and spirit, and this will help clarify our goals and guide us to those essential and most important activities in our life.

We can often spend one moment in time that satisfies several visions at once. For example, to go with a good friend to a movie, like “What The Bleep Do We Know ...” , may satisfy both soul and spiritual needs. In addition, if we happen to walk several blocks to get to the theatre and share a nutritious meal together before the show, then we have also satisfied some physical needs.

Once we have a sense of our own vision, those places in our lives where we want to express love, then we will know how to more effectively use our time. Long ago sages would travel to very isolated and far away places to get connected with their Spirit. In our lifetime, it is not so much the specific places we go to that matter, but rather it is how we spend our time and whether we can remain fully present in those moments.


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© Susan R. Johnson, M.D., F.A.A.P.
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