We all have full plates. So many tasks calling for our attention at the same time. New ones constantly being added. Where do you start?  What do you do next?  How you answer those questions determines how efficiently you work and how successful you feel at the end of the day.

There are lots of ways to develop your to-do list and determine your priorities. I use the tried and true pen and paper list. To help me, I break my tasks into categories such as Blog, Montana (where I am teaching online), ALA, and Personal. But where do I begin?

Starring the highest priority items helps, but there are always several starred items. The first item of business is knowing which comes first. On Saturdays, it is this blog. This gives me room to complete it by Sunday should life interfere. The imperative is to get it to my editor who edits what I’ve written as well as posts it on my website on Monday.

My second task on Saturday is checking on my students, responding to their posts, and grading their work. The rest of the week, they come first. I count on the amount of time I need with them to increase slowly through the week as they complete readings and are then able to submit work. The other tasks follow.

During the week there are other things on my schedule. Doctors’ appointments, phone calls that are important, and any other number of things which make planning essential because something is bound to throw me off course at some point. Holding onto my fallback mindset, “Everything will get done — it always does” can keep me calm (mostly) about unanticipated disruptions.

Another way to determine what to do first and what to next is to use the Eisenhower Box or Eisenhower Matrix, named for US President Dwight Eisenhower. It’s an excellent guide for helping you making the decisions on what to do first, next, and so on.

James Clear, author of the bestselling book Atomic Habits, explains how to use this  in How to be More Productive and Eliminate Time Wasting Activities by Using the “Eisenhower Box.”  To construct the Box, you work with two categories, Urgent and Important and their flips, Not Urgent and Not Important which give you a matrix with four boxes. Clear gives the following explanation to help differentiate between the two, “Urgent tasks are things that you feel like you need to react to: emails, phone calls, texts, news stories. Meanwhile, in the words of Brett McKay, ‘Important tasks are things that contribute to our long-term mission, values, and goals.’”  You can easily redefine Urgent for your work environment with school-related tasks – student disruption, fire drill, call from the principal.

The Box is pictured above. If something is Urgent and Important – DO it. It’s a priority. If something is Important, but not Urgent, you can schedule when it will be done. If it is Urgent and Not Important, look for ways you can delegate this – it’s not the best use of your time. And if it’s Not Urgent and Not Important… don’t do it. Cross that off and move on to the things in the other boxes.

What is important about the Eisenhower Box is that it has you identifying the difference between what is urgent and what is important. Eisenhower said, “What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.” But it is wise to know when it’s both and when it isn’t.

Life being what it is, this matrix doesn’t always work. Sometimes, you cannot delegate something, and because it is Urgent, you need to do it anyway- sooner rather than later. Which may mess up the scheduling you’ve done for the things that were Important but Not Urgent. Fortunately, this won’t be an everyday occurrence and you can return to the matrix when it’s time to plan again.

If this thought process works for you, consider adding the Eisenhower Box to your time management skill set. When you consciously decide what to do and when to do it, you feel more organized and have a sense of accomplishment. I also, am aware of what time of day is best for me to do certain tasks and what small and not very important things can be dealt with when I have short periods of time available. Look for those things in your schedule and hopefully soon you’ll be spending your time on your priorities and crossing things off your to-do list.


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