The Four Quadrants Theory

Since I’ve started this Big Day experiment, I’ve come to realize the whole thing has a side benefit I hadn’t expected. It’s a kind of therapy. It’s a valuable diagnostic tool even if you never actually do a Big Day. Just thinking about what you might do, if you were magically handed a free 24 hours — no interruptions, no other claims on your time — provides a useful snapshot of where your head and heart are right now.

I sometimes do workshops on the Big Day idea, and the first order of business is just blue sky-ing. People come up with six or so ideas, and we plot the answers on a graph that looks like this:


The two axes — ‘what you want to do’ and ‘who you want to do it with’ — create four quadrants: Work Alone, Work Together, Play Alone, and Play Together.


Quadrant 1: Work Alone

A lot of people’s ideas fall into this space. A huge source of chronic dissatisfaction is unfinished tasks. They’re unfinished because we nibble away at them over weeks or months instead of just bearing down and knocking them off.

Here are some quadrant 1 ideas I’ve seen:

I call each of these an “eat the frog” job: it may not be particularly fun but it’s gotta be done and it’ll feel great to have the monkey off your back (to mix metaphors all the way to the San Diego Zoo).

Quadrant 2: Work Together

 In Silicon Valley there’s a software executive who offers his employees what he calls a “FedEx Day” once a month. You and your group get a free day to really jam on some big project. You don’t even have to do it at the office. The only condition is that what you come up with “absolutely, positively has to be delivered overnight” – hence the name. It’s been hugely successful. Turns out people will work like Amish barn-raisers when they have a mission, a deadline, and a lot of leash.

Here are some quadrant 2 ideas I’ve seen:


Quadrant 3

As we move to the right side of the grid, from work to play, things get a little more soulful. I made a private pact that at least half of my Big Days have to be about play. Without that rule in place it becomes too easy to devote all your Big Days to just mowing down your office to-do list. That’s fine sometimes, but it doesn’t get you to the deep fish.

I split Quadrant 3 into two categories: Outward Bound and Inward Bound. In the first you’re stretching yourself physically, and in the second you’re stretching yourself psychologically.

Here’s a great example of an Outward Bound day: “the Bivvy Challenge.” You walk out the front door, make your way into the wild and you don’t come back for 24 hours.

Here’s a great example of an Inward Bound day: write and record a song in 24 hours.

My friend Ellen Langer, who teaches psychology at Harvard, has all kinds of great ideas for quadrant 3-style Big Days. She assigns them as exercises to her grad students. One of them is “Yes” days. You say yes to everything. All day long, whatever the question, the answer is Yes. Surprisingly, a lot of students report that it’s a huge relief: no decisions to make: the answer is yes! Then it’s no longer about making the right choice; it’s about making the choice right.

Some quadrant 3 days:

This is my favorite quadrant, for sure. But you could argue that the higher calling, in terms of our development as humans, is to spend more time in Quadrant 4. Because now you’re exploring your limits in a creative way, but you’re also doing it in community.

Quadrant 4

There’s an expression, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” That’s the power of Quadrant 4.

Some quadrant 4 days:


Now here’s the cool part of all of this. If you plot your top 10 ideas on a grid, you get some interesting information. Remember these are the itches that most need scratching.

Where your ideas fall on the vertical axis — alone or together — tells you if you’re craving connection or solitude.

And where they fall on the horizontal axis — work or play — tells you if you’ve been taking life too seriously, or maybe not seriously enough.

When a whole group plots their Big Day ideas on the grid, you get a kind of gestalt picture of where the group is out of balance.

If a really big group of us plotted their Big Days on the grid, we’d start to see where we’re out of balance as a culture.

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