As graduate students and postdocs, we often have specific long-term goals that may include publishing, graduating, gaining teaching experience, or landing a great job in industry. Prioritizing the many tasks we have to do is not always intuitive, even when we are centered on a specific vision and mission for ourselves (see “Knowing your mission”). The key to prioritizing more effectively is this:

Decrease the number of urgent things you have to do

Stephen Covey argues that every activity we do falls into one of four categories: 1) Important and Urgent, 2) Important and Not urgent, 3) Unimportant and Urgent, or 4) Unimportant and Not urgent.

The trick is to focus on the things that are important and anticipate tasks that will become urgent before they do. By reducing the number of urgent tasks you have to attend to, you can more easily breakdown the non-urgent, important tasks into smaller, more achievable goals. The idea is simply this: work on your long-term goals by breaking them up into smaller goals that translate into daily to-do’s. These daily to-do’s should be a realistic set of achievable tasks.

If you begin with thinking about your long-term goals, you can set “soft” deadlines for yourself for various tasks related to your long-term goals. In this way, you will reduce stress by acting more proactively rather than constantly reacting to urgent tasks. In other words, you will prevent many tasks from becoming a crisis that needs to be immediately addressed. Of course, sometimes things out of our control do come up as “important and urgent” tasks. Find a way to address the urgent things in a timely manner while still allotting a little time for “important and not urgent” tasks. This will allow you to avoid constantly having to put out fires.

The above information comes from the following resource:

Covey, Stephen R. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. Free Press, 1989.

Other resources on this topic include:

MindTools: The Action Priority Matrix.