Husband.
Father.
PCA Pastor.
Slightly sarcastic.
Apt to laughter.

Urgency, Importance, and Push Notifications (or how your smartphone will rob you of meaning)

A few months ago, I attended a Made to Flourish breakfast meeting for pastors with Matt Perman, author of What’s Best Next. He talked about productivity and time management in ministry. 

He introduced me that morning to Stephen Covey’s Time Management Matrix, which visualizes the interplay of urgent and important tasks (see below).

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He underscored the importance for pastors to focus on Non-Urgent and Important tasks (Quadrant 2 above). This quadrant is where we find refreshment in our work. For me it includes things like reading, prayer, retreats, spiritual formation, planning, writing, exercising, time with family, etc. Learning to structure time for this quadrant keeps us, humanly speaking, “in the game.” 

What I found most interesting, though, was his discussion of how Quadrants 3 and 4 relate. Quadrant 3 is full of tasks that are Urgent and Non-Important (e.g. replying to every text message or email, answering every phone call, responding to questions, etc.). Quadrant 4 is full of tasks that are Non-Urgent and Non-Important (e.g. time wasters, YouTube, mindless Social Media use, gaming, etc.). Quadrant 4 is the “Quadrant of Waste.” Perman made the point that when we spend most of our work time in Quadrant 3, we look to Quadrant 4 for rest and refreshment, but it does not work.

This felt true to experience for me. On days where I have spent a lot of time on urgent (but unimportant) tasks, I easily turn towards mindless distraction, thinking it will provide rest. I’ll scroll social media, watch TED talks, play chess against my computer, or go down the Wikipedia abyss. Mindlessness never actually provides rest and refreshment. It’s like snacking on Splenda for sustenance—sweet to the taste but non-nutritive.

And this is how uncritical use of our smartphones will ultimately undo us.

You see, our smartphones are not actually very smart. And they are really bad at distinguishing between what is urgent and what is important. Push notifications ding at us constantly, calling for our attention, pulling us in. To our phones, everything is equally urgent, and by implication, equally important. My phone alerts me, with equal urgency, that “Alex just posted for the first time in a while” and that my wife is “Locked out of the house, please help!” 

Our phones encourage us to stay in Quadrant 3 and then medicate us with Quadrant 4. They offer social media, games, and YouTube as ways to “de-stress” and “zone out.” Even Wired magazine has noted this phenomenon, noting how push notifications promise to keep us in the loop but actually rob us of meaning. This absolutely takes a spiritual toll.

Gospel maturity looks a lot like thoughtfulness. We are self-aware, engaged, present—free to love God, others, and to pursue the flourishing of the place we inhabit. It is impossible to cultivate this posture while constantly distracted. God has made us to disconnect from urgency in order to consider the things that matter most (Quadrant 2). It is why Jesus goes up on the mountain to pray. It is why blessedness follows meditation and leads to flourishing. 

This grid, then, is not merely a helpful tool for thinking about time management. It is a diagnostic for distracted hearts. And with a gospel lens, it is a way forward into refreshment and flourishing.

Anti-Psalm 6

Anti-Psalm 11