Don't Plan Your Day Around Tasks, Plan Your Day Around Values


My planner for last week. Note the weekly goals at the top.

Do you keep a planner? I didn't until very recently. I used to get out a slip of recycled paper as soon as I arrived at work, and I would chew on the end of my pen trying to remember everything that had to be done for the day. I would say, "I need to submit my syllabi to the office... and I need to respond to my editor... and I have that article review that's approaching deadline... and I need to call the contractor back..." and so on. Then I would get started on my list.

This method is sort of like performing mental triage. It begins by asking, "which task is the most urgent?" The triage method is better than nothing, but the most urgent concern isn't always the most important concern. 

As a college professor, student concerns are always urgent concerns. "Help, the link is broken!" or "OMG! Why did I get a B?" or "Call me ASAP!" I once received four e-mails within a stretch of ten minutes, each more urgent than the one that preceded it. When I called the student the following day, they could scarcely remember sending the e-mails. They had misread the instructions on a quiz, but had figured it out on their own. 

A professor who mentored me described responding to these urgent concerns as "putting out fires." Whenever I am alerted to a fire, my heart races and my stomach folds into a knot until I can put it out.

With the triage method, a typical day for me begins with extinguishing three fires. This is followed by a lull during which I focus on other time-sensitive but less urgent tasks, such as giving feedback to students or posting grades. If the fires were fantastic, then maybe I will be too tired to focus, and will need to play video games instead. Video games are an example of an activity that is neither urgent nor important. Non-urgent, unimportant activities are a great way to lick my wounds, so to speak, after a harried morning of fire-fighting. But such activities solve zero problems, and they don't get me any closer to my goals.

In time, the triage method leaves me with a schedule full of putting out fires and playing video games. 

Value-Centered Planning

The alternative to the triage method is organizing your schedule around activities that are important, but not necessarily urgent. This is the method of putting first things first, which is how it is described by Stephen Covey in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. In order to organize your schedule this way, you must first determine what your values are. What are your long-term goals. Determine these by taking a 30-year perspective.

Here are my values:

  1. To be a real human person. This means practicing congruence, which is making sure my behaviors and expressions on the outside match my thoughts and feelings on the inside. This is important for me as a writer and as a teacher and as a husband. I do not want to play a role or be phony in any of these areas of my life. I want to be myself.
  2. To be a sympathetic and supportive husband to my wife. This means that time spent with my wife or doing something for her is time well spent.
  3. To clarify my own understanding. With teaching and writing and research and assessment, I want to be guided by my own pursuit of understanding. Time spent exploring this understanding is time well spent.
  4. To support the learning and growth of others, namely students and teachers. I want to be a resource to students in the learning phase and teachers and college faculty in the career phase. I don't need to be the best resource or the most famous resource or the most well-paid resource. I want to be a useful resource. Time spent developing resources or learning how to be a better resource is time well-spent.

Planning My Schedule Around Values

To plan my schedule around my values requires a bit of planning in advance. To begin, I actually have to clarify what those values are. That takes time.The list above took a few hours to really nail down. I needed to set time aside to do it. This means looking beyond what I have to do right at this second. I have to think forward, "when will I have an hour to reflect on my values?" I decide that I always take a break at noon, so I pencil that into my schedule for tomorrow. There is nothing yet on my schedule for tomorrow, because tomorrow's fires haven't started yet.

After reflecting on my values, the next step is make a weekly plan that supports those values. On Sunday, because I have already set time aside to do so, I choose a goal or two in support of each value. "What will I do with my wife this week?" "How will I clarify my understanding of student apathy?" "How can I become a better resource to my colleagues?" And so on. Notice how none of these questions are urgent. But each is important. The goal is to fill my schedule with activities that are important but non-urgent. This is because an anxious mind is not as skilled or as patient or as creative as a relaxed mind. 

Next I will take a look at the fires that I have been routinely putting out. If students keep complaining about broken links in an online class, then maybe there is a more significant problem that needs to be solved. I will need to set time aside to research a preventative solution. This might be giving better instructions to my students. It might require professional training. And so on. Solving the root of the broken link issue might cut my fires in half. 

I complete the same root-problem-solving process with the other fires.

Soon the fires are few and far-between, and I have a calendar full of personal and professional development activities that are in direct support of my values.