August 13th, 2018

How Teachers Can Decide What’s Important (Then Ditch The Rest)

Due to the many demands placed on teachers, they often can’t decide what to do next. Everything feels urgent. Everything feels important. Everything must get done!

The reality is that everyone — teacher or not — has a limited amount of time and energy. We must decide what’s important to accomplish or we’ll perpetually feel behind and frustrated.

“What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.” - Dwight D. Eisenhower

How Eisenhower Can Help Teachers

Dwight D. Eisenhower was the 34th President of the United States and was known for his ability to get things done. Not only did he serve two terms as President, but launched the Interstate Highway System, space exploration by founding NASA, the peaceful use of alternative energy sources with the Atomic Energy Act, and military technology advancements through DARPA – which would eventually lead to the internet as we know it today. Not only that, but he made time to pursue hobbies like golf and oil painting.

For decades, researchers have been studying his habits for productivity hacks. One of his most popular concepts is a decision-making matrix. Stephen Covey popularized it in his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

For more on this topic see 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teachers Who Use Technology.


Eisenhower Decision Matrix for Teachers

Eisenhower’s decision matrix helps us discern what’s important from what’s urgent. This is a crucial distinction because important tasks contribute to our long-term goals – urgent ones don’t.

Most of us are running on the hamster wheel of performance throughout the day – operating as if everything in front of us is important and urgent – because it feels that way! But, we can train ourselves to stop, take a breath and evaluate whether the task needs to be done now, can wait or shouldn’t be done at all.

Let’s walk through each quadrant:

1. DO NOW! – Important and Urgent

Important and urgent tasks need to be done immediately. Often these are tasks that have been put off until the last minute or are emergencies that could not have been predicted. We have no other choice but to do them now.
Do Now Tasks:

  • Grade submission and reporting
  • Student injury/illness
  • Student disciplinary actions
  • Parent communication
  • Inclimate weather procedures


2. SCHEDULE – Important but Not Urgent

Important but not urgent tasks are those we can plan ahead to complete. These tasks support not only our goals but our value system.

In quadrant two we live life with purpose. We prioritize our days to make sure we are prepared for the lessons we have to teach that day, are supporting our co-teachers, spend quality time with loved ones and – most importantly – practice self-care.

Stephen Covey says we should aim to spend the most time in this quadrant. Most of the tasks in quadrant one could be moved to quadrant two if we plan accordingly.

You know those things you always say “someday I’ll get to that”? Quadrant two is where someday becomes today!
Schedule Tasks:

  • Lesson planning
  • Co-teacher/Administrator support
  • Professional development
  • Family time
  • Health/Exercise
  • Hobbies


3. DELEGATE – Not Important but Urgent

Not important but urgent tasks are the secret black hole of the teaching world. We think these tasks are important, but they are not. Do they need doing? Yes. Do they need to be done by you? Maybe not.

Stephen Covey says quadrant three is where people spend most of their time. In the short term, checking off that do-to list feel good, but where did it get us? If you remember, the definition of important is a task that supports our goals. Things like email, special committees, and bulletin board design feel important, but when evaluated against our goals, are not.

These tasks need to be delegated to someone else or we can find a solution to eliminate from our to-do list. For example, you can create a GradeCam credit/no credit form to log whether or not a student completed his daily journal assignment. You just delegated to a machine!

Delegate Tasks:

  • Gradebook logging
  • Copying
  • Filing
  • Email management
  • Special committees
  • Favors for other teachers
  • Above-and-beyond tasks


4. ELIMINATE – Not Important, Not Urgent

The not important and not urgent tasks are — we’ll just say it — fun! They are the time wasters that we gravitate towards.

Now, we should absolutely make time to rest, relax and have fun. It’s crucial for our sanity and that’s why it’s listed in quadrant two. Quadrant four is where that pet procrastination strategy lives. Whether it’s pinning new lab experiment ideas or zoning out on Netflix while you were supposedly grading – it helps to be aware of this fact when you’re sliding into time-waster territory.

If crafting for your classroom is one of our joys in life, move that activity to quadrant two and schedule in some time to each week so you can really enjoy it and it doesn’t take away from important tasks.

Eliminate Tasks:

  • Elaborate labeling/organization systems
  • Making your classroom “cute”
  • Gossip and worry
  • Shopping for supplies
  • Social media scrolling
  • TV binging

We hope this decision matrix helps you to feel in command of your time and gives you the ability to shape a healthier, happier you. Make the decision to prioritize what’s important and ditch the rest. You’ll never look back!