How to Prioritise Your Tasks When Everything is a Priority

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Written by Cassie (Teach Starter)

Explaining to a non-teacher just how busy a job teaching is, well, that’s a challenging task.

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Just imagine, if each of your tasks, ideas, plans and dreams were written onto a post-it note and displayed in a room, you’d have created a modern art gallery worthy installation that might just start to get the message across.

Luckily for us, we teachers are masters of breaking down ideas and concepts into their smaller, more digestible parts. It’s something we do for our students each and every day. However, applying this kind of process to coping with teacher workload outside of the classroom doesn’t always come so naturally.

Enter the Eisenhower Urgent/Important Principle
The Perfect Teacher Time Management Tool

Eisenhower principal urgent important matrix for teachers

The Eisenhower method of prioritising, separates each of your tasks into one of four quadrants.

  • Urgent and Important
  • Not Urgent and Important
  • Urgent and Not Important
  • Not Urgent and Not Important

Quadrant 1 – Just Get it Done
The Urgent and Important Tasks

eisenhower matrix for teachers - urgent and important tasks

Tasks that fall into Quadrant One are those that are both urgent and important. They would include things such as:

  • dealing with emergencies and crises
  • contacting parents and carers
  • carer/teacher interviews
  • meeting important deadlines like marking, reporting and interview preparation
  • and other immediately required work.

These are the tasks that you have very little control over with regards to their requirements and their given timeframe. By attending to tasks from the other quadrants before your Urgent and Important tasks, you are likely to feel increased levels of stress as this non-negotiable work hangs over your head.

And so, the strategy for an Urgent and Important task? DO IT FIRST!

Quadrant 2 – Making Your Mark
The Not Urgent and Important Tasks

eisenhower matrix for teachers - not urgent and important tasks

Tasks that fall into Quadrant Two are those that are not urgent, but have significant value to you as a both professional and a community member, as well as being of great value to your students.

Often, these are the tasks that make your heart sing!

They encompass both your personal and professional goals and may include activities like:

  •    sourcing lesson plans and resources
  •    creating differentiated learning opportunities
  •    relationship building and pastoral care
  •    reflection and evaluation
  •    professional development
  •    and self-care.

In an ideal world, these tasks would form the majority of your non-contact hours, which at first, probably seems impossible. However, by streamlining your organisational processes and your approach to work, you will slowly begin to create space in your week.

Making sure that you allocate some time in your week for tasks from this quadrant is crucial, and will help you to focus on the “doing” that makes a real and significant impact on you, your students and your school community. Not only that, but this kind of work provides you with a sense of personal and professional accomplishment.

While it is difficult to imagine finding time for this stuff, it is so important.

The huge bank of Teach Starter primary resources gives you a simple way to use high-quality teaching resources in your classroom without having to create your own each time. Once you’ve signed up for either a free or a premium Teach Starter account, you can use the Gallery function on our website to collect and collate the resources that are of the most value to you which is an #epictimesaver (!!).

Grouping like tasks and working in short, scheduled chunks of time are additional teacher productivity techniques that we have explored in this post about the benefits of time-chunking and batching tasks.

The strategy for a Not Urgent and Important task? SCHEDULE AND FOCUS.

Quadrant 3 – Eliminate the Unnecessary
The Urgent and Not Important Tasks

eisenhower matrix for teachers - urgent and not important tasks

Distractions, interruptions, and low-value but required activities like responding to emails, or completing data entry (blerg!) can seem to fill up every spare moment of our day. Tasks in this category may include:

  • many meetings
  • replying to unimportant emails
  • general interruptions
  • administrivia (the sometimes trivial, always time-consuming paperwork, data collection & memos)
  • and “over and above” jobs (like helping to make costumes for the school play!).

I must admit, the “not important” part of this label is something I do find a little hard to reconcile. As teachers, we understand the value in most everything that happens in and around our school. Not only that but a lot of the more repetitive tasks, like data collection and entry, are an ever-increasing requirement of a teacher’s job.

Subsequently, placing things like attending a district sporting event to cheer on the five kids from your class who made the team, and helping make costumes for the school play into an “unimportant” category can grate against our core values and beliefs. Our hearts often say “but this is an important part of our kids’ educational experience”.

However, the key understanding we need to have when thinking about the “Urgent and Not Important” category aligns beautifully with this quote:

“When I let go of trying to be everything to everyone, I had much more time, attention, love and connection for the important … in my life”

Brené Brown

We cannot physically sustain saying “yes” to everything, even if we truly want to.  So we learn to streamline the more mundane tasks (see an upcoming post on “time-chunking” and batching tasks to help with this), and learn when we can say “yes” to the person, but “no” to the task if the request takes time away from our core tasks of supporting students through their in-class learning experiences. This is important both as a means to increase our productivity and, more importantly, is an act of self-care.

The strategy for all of these Urgent but Not Important tasks? STREAMLINE, REDUCE OR DELEGATE.

Quadrant 4 – Downtime Duties
The Not Urgent and Not Important Tasks

eisenhower matrix for teachers - not urgent and not important tasks

This quadrant is the realm of the procrastinator, and while arguably one of the most enjoyable realms to spend time in (#instagram #twitter #allofthehashtags), the tasks that fall into this category are of little value to you during term time.

Tasks that are not urgent and not important include:

  • endless social media scrolling
  • over-analysis of anything (your own work, a specific situation or a school directive etc.)
  • gossip and speculation
  • perfectionism
  • and fancy procrastination.

If you’re the kind of person who needs to replace one label in your classroom because the laminating has started to separate but then ends up spending a whole day creating new labels for everything, then I’m guessing that the phrase “fancy procrastination” will make sense to you!

While it does feel amazing to make new, colour-coded labels for, well, every little thing, often when the school term has started to ramp up there isn’t time to give priority to this kind of aesthetic task over the rest of your to-do list.

Hence, the strategy for a Not Urgent and Not Important task? During work time, DON’T DO THESE AT ALL.

The Eisenhower Method in Action

Managing teacher workload shouldn’t be laborious. The last thing you need is feeling like you’ve failed at another attempt at keeping on top of everything. Which is why I am writing about this specific time management strategy as a way to reduce teacher stress. It is one that I have used myself for the last 18 months, and with great success.

Now that you understand the theory, here are five steps to put this effective time management tool into practice:

(Step 5 is the most important one – so if you’re skim reading don’t miss it!)

1. Choose Your Task Management Medium

Setting up the Eisenhower Method for yourself can begin with what I like to refer to as “Timely and Extremely Useful Fancy Procrastination” (which is clearly very different from other less desirable forms of fancy procrastination).

Cork Boards or White Boards

Being a hands-on person, I have set up four small, colour-coded cork boards (one for each category), on which I pin each task or idea. Daiso and Kmart each have a great selection of little boards for those of you who fancy a more tactile task management system.

These FREE printable Eisenhower planners will help you set up your physical matrix. Available in three different layouts, you can select which you feel will work best for you.

printable teacher planner using the Eisenhower Matrix time management strategy

Trello

If you like to be able to think on the go, there are some fantastic websites and apps available that are perfect for maintaining your urgent and important quadrants.

Source: Trello

Trello is great on both desktop and mobile. Read their blog to see how you can make the Eisenhower Method work using their website, or download the free app for iPhone or Android.

Google Keep

With cloud-based technology making everything SO much easier to keep track of, no matter where you are, Google Keep is a fantastic alternative to Trello that can sync with the rest of your Google Account. Downloading the free app for your Android or iPhone also means you can add thoughts and ideas to your lists wherever you go.

using google keep for eisenhower time management for teachers

Desktop Sticky Notes

These little beauties are such an easy way to implement the Eisenhower method on your laptop or desktop. By setting up a sticky note for each board (I like to choose a different colour for each category), you can delete all of the other sticky notes on your desktop and group the tasks by their new urgency/importance category.

On your Windows PC use the Sticky Notes program, and on Mac you’ll find Stickies in your dashboard.

2. Set Up Your Quadrants

Create a heading for each of your four boards and a little reminder of what kind of tasks fall into each category. You may like to use our graphic as a guide or create your own list for each quadrant.

The headings you need are:

  • Urgent and Important
  • Not Urgent and Important
  • Urgent and Not Important
  • Not Urgent and Not Important

3. Plot Your Tasks

Now it’s time to allocate each of your current and ongoing tasks onto each board, by determining their urgency and importance. Remember, some tasks may begin in one quadrant but move into another as deadlines approach (see Step 5 for how to maintain the accuracy of each quadrant).

4. Schedule Tasks Across Your Week

Take time at the beginning of each week to schedule your tasks within each of your periods of non-contact and work-at-home time. Hopefully, you will start to see when and where you will be able to spend time on the heart-happy, personal and professional growth tasks in the Not Urgent and Important category.

5. Cleanse Your Boards – With Flexibility and Kindness!

Remember, no system is ever perfect, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll fill up your boards much faster than you can complete the tasks that are already on them!

For this reason, I highly recommend that you periodically review the tasks on your Eisenhower Quadrants. Upon regular review, you’ll probably find that some tasks or ideas that you thought were extremely important, are not that important at all.

Much like any cleanse, the irrelevant and unnecessary will have naturally fallen behind the tasks that truly matter, and by removing them from your board after they have been up there for some time, it can be easier to let go of the idea guilt-free.

So, what do you think?

Like any new skill, this time management strategy will take practice. Just as we encourage our students to be kind to themselves if they take a step backwards on their journey towards conquering something new, we must be kind to ourselves too!

Let us know in the comments below if you think the Eisenhower Method is something that you’d like to try. Or, if it’s something that you already do, we would love to hear more about how you’ve made it work for you.

We would love to see photos of your Eisenhower Boards on Instagram and Facebook using the hashtag #teachstarter

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Comments & feedback

  • MISS JACKMAN

    Thank you so, so much! I am a graduate teacher and always want to do ALL of the things. I need this level of organisation to maintain my focus. I’ve decided to use Google Keep – and start the trial run over these school holidays to prioritise what I can do at home for school, and the jobs around my home that have piled up during term time, and what I can leave until I return to school.
    Now…I breathe…

    ps. the headings that you’ve offered have repeated Not Urgent Not Important where one should be Not Urgent Important 🙂

    Comment by MISS JACKMAN on July 1, 2017 at 4:07 pm


    • Cassie (Teach Starter)

      Hi Miss Jackman!

      I’m so glad this post has been of value to you. I think trying it out over the school holidays is a fantastic idea. For me personally, I notice that when I am starting to feel overwhelmed again, my boards are often in a somewhat neglected state of mess . Then a quick add, delete and shuffle of the tasks on each board seems to help bring me back to a moment of calm again (for a little while, at least!).

      I’ve only recently moved from cork boards and post-it notes to using Google Keep and am finding it to be a really excellent way of keeping track of things. Have a squiz at creating labels for your GK notes too. It’s an easy way to keep your Eisenhower notes uncluttered (under their own label) while making space for all of the other notes/reminders you want to keep for everything else (under other labels).

      Let me know how you go! I’m always keen to geek out a little over organisational processes. Teehee!

      (Thank you also for letting me know about the typo. I have read this post so many times that it slipped past my final proof!)

      Cassie – Teach Starter

      Comment by Cassie (Teach Starter) on July 1, 2017 at 10:06 pm


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