Achieving Sanity Through Prioritizing

Achieving Sanity Through Prioritizing

Stephen Carter
October 11, 2023
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Working “on” not “in” your Email

It’s been almost 35 years since Stephen Covey wrote The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and yet the truths still ring true today. Although each habit is central to the effective life, one that often climbs to the top in its importance is “Put First Things First.” Prioritize. Manage time based on what is most important in life.

Ask anyone and they’ll tell you how busy they are and how they want more time management (or just more time, which is, of course, the same thing). This is especially true in the world of education. We are flooded, day in and day out, with hosts of things vying for our attention. And often the biggest of these attention grabbers is our email inbox.

I won’t ask for a show of hands, but I do often wonder how much of our time is sucked into the vortex of email (I’m also aware of the irony that this newsletter appears in your email and thus I am contributing to the issue). I regularly pride myself in answering emails swiftly and in seeing an empty inbox as a sign of progress, only to see the inbox fill up again within a few hours.

Some time management professionals will tell you to ignore email as much as possible or only look at it once a day. Often this results, however, in missing an important or urgent issue that needs to be addressed.

My preferred method harkens back to Stephen Covey. He shares the power of the Eisenhower Matrix (pictured below) in assuming control of one’s time. The matrix is a simple but powerful tool which, if correctly implemented, yields enormous benefit in helping us to prioritize.

Using four quadrants (urgent and important, not urgent and important, urgent and not important, not urgent and not important), the matrix allows us to filter incoming tasks and requests and ideas into the areas they belong. We are encouraged, by Covey, to “live” in the second quadrant—not urgent and important—as this is where our goals and dreams and ambitions are accomplished.

The problem is the whirlwind of the urgent (both important and not important) sucks up our time from the second quadrant. Yet, if we prioritize the not urgent and important quadrant, we will experience more fulfillment and success with the use of our time. I use this technique with my email inbox. Twice a day, I go in and filter my emails into the four quadrants. Some go into “urgent and important” and they get addressed quickly. Others go into “not urgent and important” and they make their way onto my weekly goal checklist. Some go into “urgent and not important” and they are either delegated or answered in an email flurry. Finally, many go into “not urgent and not important” and they remain there until they are finally addressed.

This system has allowed me to turn email FROM a tool of time thievery INTO a tool of time management. In other words, I can now work “on” my email inbox instead of “in” my email inbox. The same principle applies in school and in business—the more time spent working “on” something, the less time spent working “in” something.


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