A Way of Thinking About Your Tasks
Important and urgent
Important but not urgent
Urgent but not important
Neither urgent nor important
These well known classifications derive from the late Stephen R. Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Restoring the Character Ethic (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990). Before he died in July 2012 (of injuries sustained in a bicycling accident, not from overwork!), Covey renamed the four quadrants in his time management grid:
Q1 (Important and Urgent) is the quadrant of Necessity. Take care of these responsibilities now. (In my life, Q1 used to be the quadrant of Panic, until I learned to budget time for Necessity. No matter how well you plan ahead, life entails a certain amount of Necessity.)
Q2 (Important but not Urgent) is the quadrant of Extraordinary Results. You want to take care of these commitments and goals before they become urgent so that you can do your best work. Schedule them for your best times of day when your mind is clearest and you are least likely to be distracted. (In my life, Q2 is the quadrant of Joy.)
Q3 (Urgent but not Important) is the quadrant of Distraction. Many of these tasks need to be done, but distract us from our real goals if we drop everything to do something that we ourselves have not initiated. Many tasks that seem urgent are in fact driven by someone else’s agenda and are therefore not important to you. Delegate them to someone else (preferably someone to whom they are important), deal with them in batches at specific times of day or week (your low-energy times, perhaps), or empower the initiator to solve the problem. If the task is now urgent because you agreed some time ago to do it, ask yourself why you said “yes” in the first place. Sometimes there are good reasons for saying “yes” (collegiality, returning a favour, building relationships), in which case perhaps these tasks really are important to your overall goals. (In my life, Q3 can be the quadrant of Resentment.)
Q4 (Neither Urgent Nor Important) is the quadrant of Waste. Postpone anything in this quadrant until you are finished important tasks for the day or week or month. You might be able to strike them off your list entirely once you recognize them as waste. Are the things in this quadrant instances of the technology controlling you? In this case, you might want to create a “habit memo.” (I used to think of Q4 as the quadrant of Despair. A programmer-colleague pointed out that for him Q4 is the quadrant of Play and Exploration; he needs time to experiment and try out technologies. As Hamlet says, “there’s nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”)
Q1: Write lesson plan for the tutorial session I am leading tomorrow morning
Q2: Take notes on Smith’s book for seminar paper due at the end of term
Q3: Answer colleague’s request for advice. Write long email to a student providing information that they could have found with a bit of prompting. Renew parking pass.
Q4: Check email, mailbox, professional blogs, and social media more than necessary. Read things that look interesting but aren’t pertinent to your work. (You might want to categorize such reading as important in your personal life, though).
Spend most of your time in Q2. Effective workers complete important tasks before they become urgent. They complete important tasks before they complete unimportant tasks. If an important task becomes urgent (if a deadline looms and the project has taken longer to complete than anticipated), they do not allow urgent unimportant tasks to get in the way. They do not allow themselves to be distracted by unimportant and non-urgent tasks. In other words, they put first things first.
Make your Q2 activities achievable. If your term goal is to “Apply archival theory to [Primary Source] in my term paper for English 503,” then your Q2 activities will be things like “Take notes on Derrida’s ‘Archive Fever’ and consider how it might help me refine my research question.” See also TIP 1 above.
Keep track of how long you actually spend on each task. You may be surprised by the difference between your expectations and the actual time required. Sometimes tasks you are dreading turn out to be surprisingly quick. Other times, tasks take longer than we expect. Tracking time spent on task will help you budget your time more realistically in the future. You might want to use your time budget to track your activities for a few weeks.
Use the small increments of time available to you. You don’t have to have a “research morning” to be productive. In fact, the most productive academics are the ones who write in short, frequent bursts. Regular contact with our research questions keeps us working away at our projects while we’re riding the bus, walking to meetings, washing the dishes, and even sleeping. If you have a spare 15 minutes, open up your research notes or your current writing project and write a few sentences. Oft-cited quotation of unknown provenance: “Energy flows where attention goes.”