Time Management: Applying the “Important-Urgent” Matrix as an ESL Teacher


Heather Torrie, Editor Introduction
Several semesters back, I was given some course release time from my normal teaching load in order to do some administrative projects in our intensive English program. I was somewhat worried when I realized that my classes were all scheduled on Tuesdays and Thursdays, leaving my Mondays and Wednesdays completely open for lesson planning and my other projects. How would I efficiently manage such a huge block of unstructured time? In the day-to-day rhythm of teaching, prep time is like a vacuum. One can spend an infinite amount of time preparing effective and engaging lesson materials. I could spend my entire Saturday planning a lesson that, during the week, I would have to prepare for in only an hour, if that were all the time I had. Likewise, whether I taught a lighter 12-hour load in the summer or a heavier 21-hour load in the fall, my classes would take up all of my time. So with my course release time, I worried that my lesson planning might crowd into my administrative work. It was then that I began thinking more about Steven Covey’s (2004) time management matrix, something I had known about for many years but never gave much thought to.
The Important-Urgent Matrix
In his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Covey (2004) provides a matrix to help us prioritize tasks based on importance and urgency. In the first quadrant are tasks that are both important and urgent. These are things that should be dealt with immediately. Common examples might be emergencies, such as fire or dealing with sick children. The second quadrant is for tasks that are important, but not urgent, such as long-term planning and personal development. The third quadrant is for tasks that are not important, but urgent. In the workplace, these might be answering emails and phone calls. And in the fourth quadrant are tasks that are neither important nor urgent, things like busywork, playing video games, and so forth.

Many people spend a lot of energy in Quadrant I, taking care of the important and urgent things. But Covey says, “As long as you focus on Quadrant I, it keeps getting bigger and bigger until it dominates you” (p. 152). The results, he says are stress, burnout, and crisis management. On the other hand, focusing on the important/not urgent tasks in Quadrant II lead to vision, balance, and control.
This is all wonderful in theory (or in the life of a corporate CEO), but how does it apply to the busy life of an ESL teacher?
Daily Tasks in a Teaching Environment
One of the challenges in prioritizing as a teacher, as well as in general life, is how to get beyond the urgent tasks, so that we are doing more than just “putting out fires.” We can apply Covey’s matrix to the daily tasks of a teacher by first identifying the degree of importance and urgency of each. This will likely differ from person to person and will change as deadlines approach and events draw near. The following examples illustrate how I look at the concerns and tasks in my own professional life.
Quadrant 1 – Important and Urgent
  • Preparing the lesson for my next class and creating materials
  • Grading a quiz so that I can return it the next day
  • Grading midterm exams and preparing grade reports that are due the following week
  • Entering final grades into the university’s online system
  • Printing a report to present at a faculty meeting
  • Completing evaluations of student mentors working in my classes
Quadrant 2 – Important, but Less Urgent
  • Planning a reunion for former students in order to better collect feedback on the program
  • Personal professional development, such as writing an article about a topic that has been on my mind, preparing a presentation for a conference coming up in a few months, or designing some classroom research
  • Taking care of administrative tasks that have no set deadline other than my own target; for example, post-test data analysis, testing reports, or updating handbooks and documents
  • Working on program tasks that are not due for several months, such as working on the self-study for accreditation
  • Designing a new course
  • Reorganizing my grade book on Blackboard so that it is clearer for students (and me) to interpret their grades
Quadrant 3 – Less Important, but Urgent
  • Answering emails about switching computer labs with another teacher
  • Printing off boarding passes and travel documents for the TESOL convention I’m headed to in the morning
  • Making photocopies of a handout of key discussion-leading phrases for the class that starts in 10 minutes
Quadrant 4 – Less Important, Less Urgent
  • Organizing my office bookshelf
  • Putting in a work order to have my office floor stripped and waxed
  • Facebook break
  • Shredding old tests and student work from five years ago
Since I began teaching ten years ago, I have generally taken care of things in Quadrant 1 first. These are tasks that have an immediate deadline. Any new instructor can tell you that there is nothing more alarming than the thought of walking into class with nothing prepared and having fifteen faces staring at you. Therefore, the first priority is to prepare your lessons. However, these important and urgent things can take up an endless amount of time, leaving you with little room for the tasks in Quadrant 2. I’ve realized that if I want to grow and develop in my career, I need to not only tackle the urgent things but also to invest time in the bigger picture: the more important things that may not be as urgent.
Going back to my experience with having Mondays and Wednesdays open for administrative work, I decided to prioritize things differently. This led to a complete restructuring of my time. I would arrive at work in the morning and resist the urge to work on lesson plans or grading, which are easier to do. Instead, I would spend the majority of the day on my administrative work. Anything relating to my classes would wait until 8 o’clock the next morning, when I would plan and prepare for my first class at 9:30am. I found I worked better that way against a hard deadline.
Since then, I have done the same with any large block of time. Often I do not teach on Fridays, so that is a lot of unstructured work time. I realize that the tasks in Quadrant 1 and 3 (the urgent ones) will get done no matter what because of deadlines. In this case, procrastination works in my favor for productivity while I focus needed attention on the important but less urgent things.
Here are some examples of choices I have to make every day on how to use my time:
Dilemma:  Grading a reading test on Thursday that I need to give back to my students in class on Monday afternoon… or setting up my grade book in Blackboard so that students can monitor their own progress?
Solution:  I choose the less urgent task of tackling the grade book. I’ll be able to squeeze in the grading on Monday morning.
Dilemma: Making photocopies of a handout for class… or creating a test report on the results of the program’s midterm exams?
Solution: I choose to work first on the report. I can make the copies on my way to class. If I don’t have time, I can always use the document camera and have the students copy the information down. It’s better for the environment anyway.
Dilemma: Preparing a quiz for tomorrow’s class… or rethinking the course design for a class I want to teach in the Fall?
Solution: I choose the course design. I will get the quiz done first thing in the morning.
Dilemma: Prepare a midterm exam that is due in two weeks… or prepare tomorrow’s lesson?
Solution: I choose the midterm exam. This is a bigger project, requiring more thought and planning. If I can take care of this now, it will free up more time for me in the coming two weeks.
The principle of tackling first the important, but less urgent things can also apply in prioritizing similar tasks with different deadlines. Imagine an ideal world where I only teach one class each day: reading on Mondays and Wednesdays and writing on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Suppose that I’ve just finished my Monday reading class and head back to the office. What should be my first priority in lesson planning, my next writing class or my next reading class? The natural priority would be for me to start preparing my next class, writing, since that is slightly more urgent.
However, just because something is more urgent than something else shouldn’t make it an automatic priority. It may be more beneficial for me to sit down and actually get ready for my next reading class in a couple of days. In this way, I feel like I am getting ahead. True, I am not ready for tomorrow’s class, but that will get done in time. Again, there is power in procrastination.
Here are some tips that have helped me to prioritize, keeping Covey’s time management matrix in mind:
  1. Do first the tasks having more long-term consequence and requiring more comprehensive planning.
  2. Distinguish between “floating tasks” (tasks without firm deadlines) and those that have fixed deadlines. Do the floating tasks first.
  3. Procrastinate tasks that will get done no matter what (i.e. those with fixed deadlines).
  4. Take care of tasks that are actually due farther in the future, rather than the task that is due tomorrow. (“Tomorrow will take care of itself.”)
As busy ESL teachers, we are daily bombarded by decisions about how to use our limited time and which tasks to do first. Returning to Covey’s time management matrix, it is essential that we first focus on the important but less urgent things in our professional lives. In this way, we may actually be more productive and grow professionally. 

 Covey, S. R. (2004). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. New York: Free Press.
Heather Torrie is the editor of the ITBE Link. She teaches in the English Language Program at Purdue University Calumet and serves as the Testing Coordinator.

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ITBE Link - Fall 2015 - Volume 43 Number 3