Pause, Clarify, Decide

Bucket of rocks

Professionals in every field today often find themselves overwhelmed by the flood of incoming information, opportunities, and tasks. Most of us want to do more than just keep up with the inbox — we have larger projects and goals we want to pursue, which sometimes get pushed to the side when we’re under the pressure of urgent deadlines and requests.

Stephen Covey’s classic productivity tool, the Urgent/Important matrix can be helpful in distinguishing between those activities that are urgent and those that are important. A nicely updated version of this matrix is at the center of the recent book The 5 Choices: The Path to Extraordinary Productivity, by FranklinCovey experts Kory Kogon, Adam Merrill, and Leena Rine. In this updated matrix, titles have been added to the four quadrants that summarize the kinds of activities found there. Thus quadrant 1 (urgent and important tasks) is called necessity; quadrant 3 (urgent but not important tasks) is called distraction.

The majority of the book focuses on strategies for maximizing the time you spend in quadrant 2, which they have named the quadrant of extraordinary productivity. The tasks in this quadrant are important, but not urgent — they are the things that will make the most difference to your work or your life in the long run, but because they are not urgent, they are also the activities that are most likely to be put off. (A FranklinCovey global study found that most professionals were only spending about 30% of their time working in quadrant 2.)


The book’s chapters are organized around 5 choices they recommend in the areas of decision, attention, and energy:

  • Choice 1: Act on the Important, Don’t React to the Urgent
  • Choice 2: Go for Extraordinary, Don’t Settle for Ordinary
  • Choice 3: Schedule the Big Rocks, Don’t Sort Gravel
  • Choice 4: Rule Your Technology, Don’t Let It Rule You
  • Choice 5: Fuel Your Fire, Don’t Burn Out

The book as a whole provides a valuable set of core principles for improving personal productivity, which feed into the process they call Pause-Clarify-Decide — training yourself to pause and think about what you’re doing, rather than just mindlessly reacting. Stopping to ask yourself periodically “what is the value of what I am doing right now?” can break you out of simply responding to crises or the trance of social media and help you redirect your attention to the most important tasks.

Some of the topics covered in the book include defining your key roles and connecting them to your important values; scheduling your most important projects first; the importance of weekly and daily planning; setting up your productivity systems; and managing the stream of incoming information.

Particularly helpful was the discussion of what the authors term the Core 4: the four kinds of information you need to manage:

  • appointments
  • tasks
  • contact information
  • notes/documents

Your productivity system needs to include a calendar, a task list, a contact list, and a system for notes and documents — and only one of each of those things, to avoid duplicating effort or losing information.

Using the Core 4 as a framework for processing email, for instance, helps you to easily identify whether there is valuable information in an email and where to put it.

Sidestepping the details of particular apps or tools in favor of clear principles and processes, this book would be of value both for someone new to the idea of creating and maintaining a productivity system, as well as for seasoned productivity enthusiasts who want to refine their approach. A preview of the book is available at the FranklinCovey website.

Have you read The 5 Choices If so, what are your thoughts?

[Illustration of the importance of scheduling big rocks first from The 5 Choices.]

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