Day 18 – The Difference between Urgent and Important in Higher Education – #100DaysofHigherEd

Back to the issue of time management. Here is the problem with time management. In many respects time is usually managed by those who have placed deadlines upon you in generally arbitrary ways. Also, there is a sense from outside forces that time is something that can be allocated by others without any real understanding on what this does to your personal timelines. Be it the ability to complete a task efficiently, your time on task, and, quite frankly, whether you want to complete the task in the first place.

Hence the idea of the Eisenhower Principle is born. In a 1954 speech, President Dwight Eisenhower described his time management as our national leader as having two problems, the Important and the Urgent. He said in the speech that “I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.” He flowed up this quote explaining that it is with this principle he organized his workload and to-do priorities. Imagine that, an actual U.S. President had a “to-do” list that was influenced by others.  

What Eisenhower taught us was the time management meant being effective means being efficient and this comes from being able to sort out your priorities. He often said that if he only focused on what is urgent he will never get to focus on what is important. Also, focusing on the urgent made every task a tight deadline and this dampens the impact of the important. Eisenhower was a really smart dude. He separated out the distinctions as:

  • Important – activities where the outcomes help us in achieving our work or personal goals.  
  • Urgent – activities that ask for immediate attention and usually are meant to achieve someone else’s goals. In additions these activities have a hard deadline which result in consequences from the assigning group.  

When we become better at categorizing the Important and the urgent we can fight off the feeling to focus on the urgent in disproportionate ways. This will allow us to be more focused on what activities actually lead to success. To be clear, we need both the important and the urgent for success. Balance is the important part. If everything is a fire then all we become good at is putting them out.

So, how do we use this information to categorize the Important and the Urgent? Here is how I do it. Each week I list out all of the activities and projects I feel that I have to do over the course of the next three weeks. Some of these items are rotating, some are date sensitive, and such. I then break these tasks into four categories:

  1. Important and Urgent – These are deadlines I have in the next few weeks and they are important for my work. Like a grant application or completing an assessment project report. I then allot time needed to complete these tasks with clarity and efficiency. These are placed with priority blocks on the calendar. I also pay attention to which of these items have annual dates and mark them down for future consideration to avoid the urgent if we can.
  2. Important but not Urgent – These activities are important personally and professionally and need to be completed for success. These require plenty of planning and execution time but may not have deadlines and are not urgent. These can contain “soft” deadlines, lets say a three or four day cushion.
  3. Not Important but Urgent – Urgent tasks you need to do but not important for your goals. These tasks may be routine reports and operations you need to complete. Many times they are tasks that can be done quickly with less intensity and delegated to others. These are tasks that require some set time where you allow yourself to set up these tasks and complete them in short order. They need to get done but lets not kill ourselves okay?
  4. Not Important and Not Urgent – These are activities that are a distraction and actually impede progress. You may like the activity, may even be good for your profession at some point but not today. These tasks may also be externally motivated and may require you to say “no” to. We all fall for this trap and we need to stop doing these things.

Overall, I have gotten better at task prioritization by using this system. I even have different color pens to categorize these tasks and to set my calendar. The Eisenhower principle has really worked for me, maybe it will work for you.

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