As classes wind down, there is always loads of pressing “to do” list items to attend to. There’s the seemingly endless grading, all the end of the semester tasks like archiving course materials, the last round of committee meetings, and planning for summer projects. It can be tricky to keep on top of things, and then, know how to prioritize all those “to do” list items. And naturally, who would you turn to for advice in this situation? Why, former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, of course.
Prioritizing via the Eisenhower Matrix
“What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.”
- Dwight D. Eisenhower
Eisenhower was arguably one of the most influential leaders in the history of the United States. From commanding the Allied Forces in World War II to launching NASA to serving as Columbia University President, Eisenhower was exceptional at not only getting things done, but at accomplishing meaningful and lasting goals. His most important contribution to productivity, however, is what has been called the Eisenhower Box, Matrix or Decision Matrix.
Deceptively simple, this strategy challenges you to categorize your tasks and projects into one of four quadrants according to their level of urgency and importance. The first quadrant should contain those tasks that are both urgent and important; the second those that are not urgent, but important; the third those that are urgent, but not important; and the fourth those that are neither urgent nor important. When I feel like I’m barely keeping my nose above water, I categorize the tasks I’ve recently completed as well as the items I have yet to attend to. What I often realize is shocking.
When You’re Drowning, Focus on the Important
When I’m feeling overwhelmed, I often find that I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time in quadrants three and four – those tasks that are not important. Why is this? I think that many of the things that can suck up the most of our time are those that we can (or think we can) attend to quickly. Whether it’s answering email (who isn’t drowning in their inbox these days?), filling out forms, or tidying up files from previous semesters, it’s easy to let the unimportant tasks – particularly those that may seem urgent – to push off more important tasks and projects.
The real challenge to focusing on more important tasks is that, as President Eisenhower explains in the quote above, the important tasks are rarely urgent. Keeping current with disciplinary journals, reaching out to colleagues at other universities to find out what they’re working on, and making time to mentor a student are rarely (if ever) urgent. Yet these are the very things that help you to reap the greatest rewards and make the most contributions going forward. This is how the simple act of categorizing tasks according to the matrix can help you to identify those entries that are important for you in the long run. The trick is to be honest with yourself on the importance of specific tasks and projects. One simple way I do this is to ask myself if a particular entry would matter in six months. This helps me with perspective.
In reality, we can’t spend all of our time in quadrants I and II. Those emails need to be answered. You’ve got to fill out the travel authorization form for the conference next month. You can, however, make sure to avoid spending all, or even the majority of your time, in quadrants III and IV. Like Stephen Covey reminds us, you have to “put the big rocks in first.”
What productivity and prioritization strategies help you to do the work that matters most?
Please post your comments below.