One of the aspects of being a professor that I really enjoy is the freedom to pursue different interests and projects. I do find it challenging at times, however, to select among competing priorities. Because there’s never enough time to take on all the possible projects that come your way, it’s important to be able to determine those opportunities that are the best for you, personally and professionally. One such strategy is what’s become known as the Eisenhower Matrix (fans of Stephen Covey will also find this familiar).
This method was said to be used by President Eisenhower to help him to determine priorities by considering a task or project relative to how urgent and how important it was. According to this method, the more urgent and important a task or project is, the higher you should prioritize it. If a task or project is low in terms of urgency and importance, it’s probably not worth doing. It is typically presented in a four quadrant matrix, as depicted in the image below from the Mindtools blog:
I particularly like how the author of the post characterizes each quadrant with a descriptor. Labels help me, I guess.
As a new opportunity or task comes your way, consider it’s urgency and importance relative to what else is on your plate. You can use your work roles/responsibilities to help you define urgency and importance. You can also consider your own personal needs and desires as factors that help you position an opportunity on the matrix. For example, I recently received proofs back on a book that will come out this November. Assuming it comes out on time, it will coincide nicely with a conference presentation about the book. Now, if the book is completed and printed in time, this may result in higher sales and greater visibility for my work. Therefore, while attending to the minutia of the proofs was pretty much the last thing I wanted to do today, it was both urgent and important. This translates into a “critical activity.” In contrast, while developing an ebook on effective presentation techniques with digital media is very interesting to me, relative to what else I have on my plate, it’s probably not urgent or important. In other words, at least at this point, this would probably be classified as a “distraction.” Beginning this blog is kind of an interesting case, however. While it’s not likely to help me to advance in rank or line my savings account, it is a personal interest and is sustaining to me personally. It helps me to process my ideas and hopefully develop a community of like-minded folks to share strategies, tools, and ideas. Therefore, while not urgent, it is important to me and therefore I would classify it as an “important goal.” So, it’s worth doing, but probably will get put on the back burner in cases where more urgent and important tasks come to the fore.
Eisenhower is said to have remarked, “What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.” I think of this approach as a kind of compass to help address Eisenhower’s observation. While still requiring some thought and subjectivity, breaking down a task or project’s relative urgency and importance can be a helpful cognitive tool to prioritize your work. What’s trickiest for me is not spending too much in the “interruptions” category. A high percentage of emails certainly fall into this category. And while some of these items do need attention, the matrix helps to keep me focused on trying to stay in the “critical activities” category as much as possible.
What tools and strategies are helpful to you in being strategic with your priorities?