Without realizing it, time is up. The day is over. Unfortunately, that means you ran out of time to cross out the last few bullets on your list of things to do. You become stressed and overwhelmed, because the deadlines for some of your tasks are approaching fast.

There are never enough hours to finish each task on your list. It’s also hard to decide which tasks to prioritize within your limited time. Often, you end up putting extra hours in finishing research projects with strict deadlines. The problem with longer hours is your efficiency decreases. When you are tired and stress, you tend to make more errors (Woolston, 2017).

One easy way to manage our time better is by using the urgent-important matrix, also known as the Eisenhower Principle. As Dwight D. Eisenhower (former U.S. President) once said, “What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.” (Bielczyk et al., 2020).

The urgent-important matrix helps you to prioritize your tasks based on the level of urgency and importance. Therefore, define what’s urgent and what’s important. Urgent tasks are activities that demand our immediate attention, whereas important tasks bring us closer to our goals.

The Urgent-Important Matrix

To manage your time effectively, categorize activities and organize them from high to low priority. The order for this list is: important and urgent; important, but not urgent; not important, but urgent; and not important, not urgent. After that, you can proceed to focus on tackling those tasks in the high priority list.

1. Important and Urgent

The tasks in this category are crises. If not attended to as soon as possible, they can impede your goals. Therefore, do these tasks at first. Examples of ‘important and urgent’ tasks include preparing your presentation for tomorrow and arranging a repair for a broken PCR machine in your laboratory, so you can do your experiment.

2. Important, But Not Urgent

These tasks are associated with important things that you need to do without time constraint, for example performing your research experiments, and conducting literature reviews for your study. You can certainly wait to do these tasks, but you must schedule and do them to achieve your goals.

Eisenhower principle, time management, urgent-important matrix

3. Not Important, But Urgent

These tasks in the ‘not important, but urgent’ category require your immediate attention, but they cannot help you get closer to your goals; for example, answering certain emails, invitations to join side research projects, and a request from a graduate student to help her or him troubleshoot her or his experiments. Most of these tasks can become interruptions, particularly when you have too many tasks with tight deadlines in your schedule. Therefore, delegate these tasks or do them later.

4. Not Important and Not Urgent

This type of activity distracts you from finishing your goals; for example, checking your phone and sorting through junk e-mails. Don’t do these activities when you have too much on your list.

Some Useful Tips for Effective Time-Management

Plan Your Long-Term Goals

Planning small steps towards your ultimate goals is important to navigate your career (Bielczyk et al., 2020). It should include planning tasks for short-term goals and a clear timeline leading to your long-term goals. Later on, this plan will guide you on choosing your urgent and important tasks. By doing so, you will also avoid procrastinating, being too overwhelmed, and stressed out.

Identify Your Most Productive Time

Identify the time of day when you have the most energy to finish your ‘important and urgent‘ tasks and the time of day with the lowest energy to do more maintenance work, such as splitting cells and cleaning up your lab bench.

Take Care of Yourself

Don’t forget to allocate time for self-care activities, such as exercising and eating. These activities belong in the ‘important, but not urgent’ category. The goals of these activities are to keep you healthy and stress free. Both illness and stress can affect your ability to get you closer to your long-term goals.

Learn to Say ‘No’

After planning the timeline for your goals, choose tasks based on the urgent-important matrix. Saying ‘no’ to activities in the ‘not important, but urgent’ category is difficult. However, it is necessary when you have too much on the other higher priority lists (Bielczyk et al., 2020). To make it easier, you can imagine if the deadline for your tasks is approaching soon, would you still say ‘yes’ to these activities? When you finally find spare time, you can definitely go back to these activities.

Avoid Distractions

Eliminate any distractions that will delay you from finishing your ‘important and urgent’ tasks. You can use this method to avoid distractions: make them inaccessible for you. For example, you can silence and put away your cell phone when you are in the middle of finishing ‘important and urgent’ tasks. At your workplace, you can close your office door when you are busy (Boss & Eckert, 2004). This closed door sends a message to your colleagues to ‘not to come in’, so they will find another time to chat with you unless there is an urgent situation.

Learning how to prioritize your daily activities can help you manage your time effectively and steer your career in the right direction. One way to do it is by categorizing short-term tasks based on the importance and urgency leading to the fulfilment to your long-term goals. By doing so, you avoid unnecessary stress when the deadlines for these tasks are getting closer.


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