It’s a new year, and with that often comes new resolutions. I’m quite the list maker, so jotting down goals/resolutions/things-to-do is basically a habit. This year, however, I am taking it a step further. I am committing to transition from a planner to a prioritizer.
The idea comes from Stephen R. Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. This book has been around forever—okay, maybe only forever in my world since it came out a few years after I was born—but anyway, I found a CD series of the book at Goodwill and decided it was finally time to read it. It is jammed back with helpful habits and tidbits and a great read for anyone. It was Habit No. 3: Putting First Things First that really struck a chord with me.
Despite my planners and to-do-lists, I often find myself rushing to get things done at the last minute. Although there are plenty of things that can contribute to my procrastination, Covey’s message made me realize how planning becomes completely inefficient if you have no order to the plans. Yes, I might even attach due dates to my list, but the lists still tend to be too disparate from the big picture. I need to prioritize to be effective.
Indeed, prioritization is just a manner of deciding what is most important. However, given the in-your-face, immediate gratification world we now live in, it is easy to confuse important with urgent. I’m sure this scenario might resonate with a few of you: you’re typing away at your desk and then an email pops up. You see the tag line, it’s from your adviser/boss/partner and you think “I gotta get back to them.” So then you divert your attention to whatever is the topic of the email is. For me, I might get an email asking what dinner would be. I now feel like I should scour the internet for recipes… or better yet, Pinterest… or maybe Instagram? And before I know it, time escaped me. Covey jokes about how bad our attention is when he describes another well-known scenario: you have a person sitting in your office but your phone rings, we tend to answer the phone and make the person sitting in front of us wait.
If we allow unimportant tasks that we deem to be urgent derail us from more important issues, we will wait to the last minute to get the important things done. This is why prioritization matters. We need not only to schedule and plan our time, but that should go hand-in-hand with prioritizing our plans. So, rather than making a list, Covey suggests a 4×4 table. (Oh hey fellow statisticians, you know you love tables too). I will show how he describes it and then show how I adapted it for my work schedule.**
Here is my example:
“Important” should be on the Y-axis (vertical) and “Urgent” should be on the X-axis (horizontal). Therefore you will have 4 quadrants: (1) Important and Urgent; (2) Important and Non-Urgent; (3) Unimportant and Urgent; and (4) Unimportant and Non-Urgent.
Quadrant (1) Important and Urgent should include the tasks that need to be addressed right away. For instance, I have a deadline on a dissertation chapter. For me, the dissertation is very important and I have set deadlines with my advisor that I need to stick to.
Quadrant (2) Important and Non-Urgent should include tasks that are important, but that you are planning ahead for so you have ample time to complete them. As you see, some chapters of my dissertation are in this quadrant as well. I know they are important, so I will keep them in mind as I work towards completion but they don’t have an immediate deadline. When you get really good, Quadrant 2 will have the majority of the tasks. That is because you will slowly begin to eliminate unimportant tasks, and with planning, you will not leave important tasks to the last minute.
Quadrant (3) Unimportant and Urgent is where a lot of people get caught up. Emails are often not that important but feel very urgent. If we schedule a set time to read and respond to emails (e.g., for 30 mins every day at 11am and 4pm) we won’t get distracted by these tasks.
Quadrant (4) Unimportant and Non-Urgent is really a time trap. Social media is something I am working on (I tried to rationalize this, saying that social email is important to me 😉 but then I thought about the big picture).
I hope that this table will push me to be an efficient and productive prioritizor. Heck, I’ve already submitted my article to the American Sociological Association and completed a blog post. Another great complimentary strategy is to put tasks into each hour block of the day. Head over to Get a Life PhD for an example. I am about to update my own schedule for this semester now (and might blog about it in the future). I’d love to hear other tips on planning and prioritizing!
** The example photo I included just has my work related tasks, but a full table might also include anything that takes your time such as paying bills, scheduling doctors’ appointments.