Prioritize Like Ike

Updated: Aug 26, 2020

In the last post, we learned about research that found that some educators, in an effort to help their students, actually ended up hurting them. Why? In short, because they don’t prioritize effectively.

Let’s figure out how to change that.

Below, I’ve outlined a method that can help you avoid the feeling of overwhelm that befalls so many educators. It’s based on an idea that changed my life: The Eisenhower Principle.

Dwight D. Eisenhower was the 34th president of the United States. In addition to being the leader of the free world, he served as the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II. In that capacity, he was instrumental in Hitler’s defeat. He was the president of Columbia University. He was the first-ever Supreme Commander of NATO. As U.S. president, he launched DARPA, which would go on to play a pivotal role in creating the internet. He helped launch NASA. And paved the way for the creation of the Interstate Highway System. In short, Eisenhower got. stuff. done.

In 1954, he said the following: “I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.” Over time, a version of this quote has come to serve in the popular consciousness as The Eisenhower Principle: “What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.”

The Eisenhower Principle helps us see that, with any challenge or task, there are two dimensions:

  1. Importance

  2. Urgency

Importance relates to whether we should do something. Urgency relates to when we should do it.

Based on this idea (and with a pinch of corny clip art) I created the table you see below, which I’ll call “The Eisenhower Organizer.” It's a tool we can use to sort any given action we take into one of four categories.

The way to avoid the misery that engulfed me during my first year of teaching and the perils we discussed in the last blog post is to act on the wisdom contained in the table above. If you can internalize the lessons The Eisenhower Organizer has to teach, your life will never be the same. That may make me sound like a used car salesman, but it’s true.

Consider what my Eisenhower Organizer looked like during my first months as a teacher.

As you can see, Row 2 ballooned. Everything felt urgent. Of course, many things were urgent. I really did need to have a lesson plan for the next day. I really did need to fix the jam in the copy machine.

Unfortunately, however, to put out all those fires, I cut out almost all activities that weren’t immediately important for surviving the next day. That was my critical blunder: As Row 2 ballooned, Row 1 constricted. The good investments I'd been making over the summer--eating well, sleeping enough, exercising--all went out the window.

I also struggled to distinguish between Rows 2 and 3. Everything seemed urgent, so I skimped on sleep to try getting everything done.

Over time, thanks to sleep deprivation, I had a harder and harder time managing my emotions. Things that wouldn’t have ruffled my feathers before were now driving me up the wall. Little tensions with students became big conflicts. Classroom management went from bad to worse.

And then, as soon as I had a free moment, I slipped right into Row 4. I spent hours on Facebook fantasizing about a mindless office job. I wished I were even a fraction as happy as my friends seemed to be. I know others struggling in similar ways who would submerge themselves into extended Netflix binges, their health and happiness deteriorating.

If I could do it over again

If I could redo my first year as a teacher, I’d do a lot differently. Most importantly, I’d discipline myself to give Row 1 a lot more love than I ended up giving it.

Here’s a picture of what I wish my Eisenhower Organizer had looked like.

Take a moment to compare my actual time allocation to my ideal time allocation above.

As you’ll notice, the key distinction is this: the amount of time invested in Row 1.

That’s the essential learning we can take from The Eisenhower Principle: The more seeds you sow in Row 1, the greater the harvest you’ll reap.

* * *

How have you been spending your time? Alternatively, how do you want to use it moving forward?

Use the blank Eisenhower Organizer you can find here to think through the way you’ve been spending your time the past few weeks or to plan your habits moving forward.


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