This professional development column focuses  on effective time management using a prioritization principle from Stephen R Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

To improve time management and productivity, Covey suggests that you plot all of your pending tasks on a matrix of urgent/not urgent and important/not important. Urgent tasks have a deadline or are highly visible to you, while important tasks contribute to your long-term goals. Spending time defining your medium and long-term goals will help you to effectively prioritize all the tasks on your plate. Start by applying this framework to all your current tasks. Then when you are asked to do additional things, apply the framework to prioritize any new tasks among your existing tasks.

  1. All tasks that are both urgent and important, for example a K award deadline or an ED patient in respiratory failure, receive first priority. With time, however, the goal (at least outside of an ED shift) should be to anticipate deadlines and crises before they occur, so that all of your tasks remain in category 2 instead of category 1. This requires you to be proactive, so that you can avoid being reactive. Review your calendar frequently, keeping an eye on tasks 2-4 weeks in advance, and start devoting an hour a day to work toward deadlines while they are still far out in the future, before they become crises.
  2. Tasks that are important but not necessarily urgent should be where you focus the majority of your time and attention. These tasks are important to you and your life goals, so they are the most personally fulfilling and will make you feel as though you have accomplished the most with your time. Because they are not urgent, however, we often fall into the trap of focusing on areas 1 or 3 when we really should be focusing here. Things like building relationships, spending quality time with friends and family, exercise, and vacations fall into this category, as do long-term professional goals such as publications and promotions.
  3. Noticeably in Covey’s model, not all urgent things are actually important. Receiving five email reminders requesting that you complete a survey about your recent flying or dining experience does not mean that the survey is worthy of your time. Similarly interruptions at work, which we experience frequently during our shifts and due to the 24/7 ping of text messages and emails, can push themselves into our ‘right now’ bucket. Give yourself permission to de-prioritize these types of tasks. When someone is pushing for your time, rather than shifting your attention to provide a full response immediately, offer up a future time slot after you complete your more important tasks: “can I get back to you next week?”
  4. Finally, recognize that some tasks on your to-do list are neither important nor urgent. If they do not meet your goals nor recharge your batteries, give yourself permission to de-prioritize these tasks forever. Say no. Delete them from your inbox without guilt and save your time for the things that matter to you.

A version of this article was originally published in AWAEM Awareness April-June 2017.