The Important/Urgent Matrix: A Monday Morning Post (on Tuesday)

Though it’s only been a rough goal, I have set myself a goal to post here about once a week. Further, I have set a timeframe for that goal: to post here on Mondays. Once a week feels manageable to me, and though I have not (yet!) built up a large cadre of loyal followers and commenters, I think reading a once a week blog might feel manageable to my readers.

This week, the logic behind not posting on Monday took on less the quality of logic and more the quality of derailment. I was supposed to be on a direct flight back from a family wedding on Sunday evening. The flight was well-timed: I was to arrive at 9PM, be in bed at 10PM, and up and at ’em, bright eyed and bushy tailed on Monday morning. Well. Arriving at the airport on Sunday to discover that the flight had been canceled (yes, yes, I know I could have checked my flight status online, or on my phone, or by calling, and no I didn’t…) put a serious crimp in my plans. I don’t work well on the road unless I know I’m going to have to and make specific arrangements. Working on the road, for me, requires what Joan Bolker calls “parking on a downhill slope.” They suggest leaving yourself relatively clear and easy tasks at the end of a work day, on the theory that that will make work easier to start the next morning. (There were surely days of dissertation writing that felt amazingly like the time in 1995 I had to drive from Boston to NYC with no alternator and thus  no battery. Downhill slopes all the way!) If I have to set myself a task and do the task, it’s unlikely that I’ll be very productive on the road.

Monday, Monday…

But that leaves me here, on my surrogate Monday morning, feeling like I have three days of work undone, and a full day of work to do in front of me. Which put me in the mind of Covey, Merrill, and Merrill’s matrix of important and urgent. Wikipedia links to a useful graphic of their concept. Losing a day of work, to anything–airplanes, emergencies, the flu–seems to slam everything I have upcoming to do right into the “urgent-and-important” quadrant, even when it’s not strictly speaking true.

Merrill Covey Matrix

Merrill Covey Matrix

Reflecting back on my three-part series on the profession, I note that I only really wrote a short note, more of a rant, for the teaching section. I think this is indicative of something. More so than scholarship and service, teaching can hop up into quadrant one very easily–and sometimes deservedly so. Sometimes students need your attention and sometimes they need it now. Of course, the more planning and focus you can give in quadrant two to teaching, the less likely it is that teaching becomes an emergency. However, teaching is a world of hard deadlines and unexpected crises. If class is not planned, you can’t get just a few more hours to work on the plan. If half your class is out with the flu, you can’t very well just pretend it didn’t happen.

So today is a day when I will try to manage my time carefully, putting out fires where I need to, but trying not to mistake interruptions and distractions for fires. I teach tomorrow morning at 8:30–that’s a hard deadline I can’t ignore. I have a conference call today at noon–ditto. But to do my best work here, I can’t only focus on the deadlines that are urgent.

I’ll leave you with some references. The first dissertation book I ever read, and the origin of the “downhill slope” theory.

Bolker, Joan. Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day: A Guide to Starting, Revising, and Finishing Your Doctoral Thesis. New York: Holt, 1998.

And the book that originated the matrix on the right. I haven’t actually read First Things First, but I have seen the matrix often enough that I finally looked up its origin.

Stephen Covey, A. Roger Merrill, Rebecca R. Merrill, First Things First: To Live, to Love, to Learn, to Leave a Legacy. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994.