“I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.” –President Dwight Eisenhower

As your first semester at City Tech gets underway, we hope that you have developed a routine that allows you to make the most of your time, both in and out of the classroom.

However, even the best laid plans sometimes go astray, and unanticipated challenges will surely arise. Maybe your routine is thrown off when a research project takes longer than expected to finish, your manager at works asks you to put in extra hours to cover for a coworker who is sick, or an urgent family responsibility requires you to miss class.

In the following sections, we offer advice as to how to deal with the challenges and distractions that can threaten your college routine.

Keep Your Long-Range Goals in Mind

First, when you’re stressed out in the moment, take a step back and recall the goals that led you to college in the first place. Are you preparing for a specific career? Do you want the salary boost and better job prospects that a college degree can afford? Are you studying something you love? Remember why you’re doing this.

You are paying for the “cost” of each college hour with your tuition. Consider how much each credit hour and course costs. You don’t want to waste your money and pay for the same course twice because you have to repeat it. Remind yourself how each course and each semester is leading you toward your goals. Keep the “big picture” in mind.

Plan for “Crunch” Periods in Your Schedule

There are bound to be times when you can’t refuse family obligations, when you must work overtime, when someone close gets ill, or when you have a personal emergency. To avoid panicking during these unavoidable events, build in buffers (see “flex” time). The best way to do this is to keep up with or even stay ahead of your course requirements. This way, when problems arise, you will be better able to face them.

The Important and the Urgent

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, with too many tasks piling up and no idea what you should even work on first, it’s time to take a step back and borrow a concept from the business world: The Eisenhower Principle. Although this idea is based on a speech that President Dwight Eisenhower gave many years ago, it’s used frequently in business planning to this day. This principle involves making a list of all of the tasks that you feel that you need to do, and then asking two questions about each one: “Is it urgent?” and “Is it important?”

Important tasks have an outcome that leads to achieving your long-range goals, whether these are academic, professional, or personal. These are the things that matter: Completing a major research project, studying for a crucial exam, filing your FAFSA on time each year, applying for an internship in your chosen field, building meaningful relationships with friends and loved ones.

Urgent tasks demand immediate attention, usually because they involve meeting a deadline or responding to someone else’s request. This can include things like a personal crisis, a homework assignment with an immediate deadline, a meeting of a club or other group you belong to, a chore like washing dirty laundry that is piling up, or a social media notification or text message that asks for a response.

Eisenhower observed that we often spend all of our time trying to attend to urgent tasks, but that this can lead to putting off or failing to do the things that are truly important. To act on his advice, reorganize your To-Do list into the following categories:

Important and Urgent:

These are the tasks that are truly important to you and have upcoming deadlines that must be met. Here are some examples of urgent and important tasks:

  • Taking a sick family member to the hospital
  • Finishing a major assignment that’s due tomorrow
  • Attending major life events of loved ones, such as a wedding or a funeral
  • Meeting a deadline that has significant consequences if missed (such as failing to file your FAFSA on time and therefore not receiving financial aid for college next year)

Put these items at the top of your list and attend to them as soon as possible. If it becomes clear that you simply can’t accomplish all of them by their deadlines, identify which tasks may be negotiable. For example, if a family emergency means that you can’t finish a major assignment on time, email your professor before the deadline, inform them of the emergency, and ask politely for an extension on that assignment.

Important but Not Urgent:

This category is where your best work will be done. These are the things that are important to you but either don’t have a fixed deadline, or have a deadline that is still well in the future. Here are some examples of important but not (yet) urgent tasks:

  • Major assignments due later in the semester:
    • Thinking about and planning what you will investigate for a research project, or what your final project in a course will demonstrate and what you will need to do toward completing that goal so you are satisfied with the end product
  • Reviewing your notes each week: writing out questions for what is still not clear to you (so you can ask questions in class, or look back at readings)
  • Doing something you love (painting? playing a sport? what’s meaningful to you?)
  • Getting enough sleep each night
  • Spending time with family and friends
  • Maintenance tasks: taking care of tasks that may not have deadlines but bother you because they are outstanding (a leaky faucet? renewing a license? a medical issue?)

These are the activities that will help you achieve your academic, professional, and personal goals. Build time for them into your schedule, and start working on them early enough that they don’t become “urgent.” You may think you’re at your best when you’re up against a deadline, but for most of us that’s not actually the case.

If you’re in a time crunch, these important but not urgent activities can be rescheduled for a later date. For example, you may have to postpone a regular weekly study session if you have an urgent family crisis. And you might have to forego a night out with friends because you have a lab report due the next day. The key here is that if you have to put off these important activities, make sure to schedule a time to do them. Find time over the weekend to squeeze in that weekly study session you missed, or make plans with your friends to get together in a few weeks when your schedule is less busy.

Urgent but Not Important:

These are the tasks that can really sap your time and energy by demanding an urgent response without actually helping you achieve long-range goals. Here are some examples of not important but urgent tasks:

  • Incoming texts, phone calls, or social media alerts
  • Non-essential meetings in person or online
  • Unexpected requests from family or friends

Because your phone is buzzing or your calendar is sending you an alert about an upcoming meeting, these tasks can seem urgent and can get in the way of accomplishing truly important things. Eisenhower’s advice? Look through this list and eliminate anything that you don’t really want or have to do.

Let’s say you’ve joined a club on campus because a friend asked you to, but it turns out you don’t really enjoy the club meetings or feel they help you meet your goals. You might decide to gently inform the friend that you don’t have time to participate in this activity. Similarly, evaluate requests from family and friends and learn how to say “no” when you are too busy to do what they are asking. Lastly, texts, social media alerts, and emails popping up on your phone may seem urgent, but they seldom are. Rather than responding to every communication as it arrives, turn off notifications for blocks of time when you are working on important projects. Set aside specified times to check your phone.

Not Urgent and Not Important:

These are the tasks that you do not need to prioritize, and should complete only if you enjoy them and don’t have anything more important to do at the moment. Tasks that are not urgent or important include:

  • Browsing the internet or social media
  • Watching TV or YouTube videos
  • Playing video games
  • Shopping for nonessential items
  • Checking sports scores
  • Activities others invite you to do that you are not interested in

We all need some downtime, and there’s nothing wrong with relaxing and playing a video game from time to time. But do pay attention to how much time you spend on activities that are neither urgent nor important, and reduce this time if it’s interfering with your ability to do the things that will help you achieve your goals.

If you suspect you’re spending too much time on things that aren’t important, take a page from Eisenhower’s book and categorize your To-Do list using the chart below. First make a list of all upcoming tasks, and then place each one into the appropriate category. Use this list to help you reorder your priorities and make sure you’re accomplishing the things that are truly important to you!

Exercise 2.4: The important and the URgent

Click to download a fillable document: Exercise 2.4: The Important And The Urgent

Wasting Time: Putting Off What You Must Do

Putting off starting to work on assignments eats up your time because you are thinking about them without really doing anything. Often, students put off tackling assignments perceived as most challenging. These may be papers, lab reports, or other projects—the big assignments that are among your “important” obligations. Schedule time to work on these assignments before they become “urgent.” A great way to avoid procrastination is to work on these projects with a tutor, fellow students, or with your professor during office hours, because appointments with others will hold you to your schedule.

Use your time so it does not become “No Time” to do what you need to do.

  • What have you been avoiding? Divide the project into smaller, manageable tasks and decide what to do first. For example, you might decide to start by finding one reliable source for the research paper you’re working on.
  • Set a time limit for that first part of the first task. When the time is up, step away from the task and assess your progress.
  • This is your current priority for your undivided attention. So, this is no time to check in on emails, social media, texts, chats, calls…You are working!
  • Only when the block of time allotted is up allow yourself a short break: stand up, walk around, get some water.
  • Go on to the next part of the task…repeat this process for the time you have set aside to work on this task. Schedule the next block of time when you will work on this task.

And for yourself:

  • Decide what is “good enough.” This advice is for the perfectionist who drains themselves of energy, time, and attention by not letting go.
  • On the other hand, can “good enough” be made better? Ask someone to look at your work and listen to the feedback. Turn your work in early and ask your professor if it can be improved.

Overcoming Reading Distractions

What are some common distractions that divert your attention from reading? Where are you able to focus the best? Find a quiet, distraction-free place where you can do assigned reading without interruption. If the temptation to check social media is too great, tell yourself that you won’t respond to messages or check statuses until you have read a certain number of pages. Or you can download a blocking app.

Then, reward yourself! After meeting a goal, such as reading those pages, give yourself a break or a snack, or allow yourself to check social media or listen to a podcast for a set amount of time.

What if the Reading Assignment has Stopped Making Sense?

Let’s say you are struck with information overload, or you have read and re-read the section, passage, and/or chapter and still don’t understand. Okay, do this:

  • Re-read the first paragraph of the part that confuses you most.
  • Re-read the last paragraph.
  • Write down (do not just think about) what you think is the main idea of that part of the reading.
  • Challenge yourself. Close your eyes, count to five, open your eyes, and read that part again.
  • Were you right or wrong about that main idea? Whatever the result of your first guess, you got yourself out of a word block, and returned to reading with understanding. Success!

If You Didn’t Leave Enough Time to do the Reading

Despite the best intentions, sometimes you will just run out of time. If this happens, at least take note of the titles, headings, and subheadings of the assigned reading. Preview by reading the first and last paragraphs or sections of the assigned text. Find the important points and write them down.

What if You Really Don’t Have Enough Time?

You may find that despite making an organized schedule, prioritizing important tasks, and developing good study habits, you still don’t have enough time to handle all of your responsibilities. Some students who work a lot of hours and/or have significant family responsibilities realize that there don’t seem to be enough hours in the day to complete their college studies successfully as well. At this point you might visit the Counseling Center for resources and advice. Another possibility is to contact the Student Success Center, where you can work with an academic coach to assess your situation and make a plan.

Here are some options to consider:

Can You Negotiate Your Family Responsibilities? Sometimes family members, especially those who haven’t attended college themselves, don’t understand the demands of college studies. They may see a lot of empty time on your schedule, since you’re not in class as much as you were in high school, and assume that is free time that can be filled with household tasks. Choose a time when you and your family members are relaxed and open to conversation, and discuss this calmly with them. Show them your syllabi with their lists of due dates, and explain how much time you need to study and work on assignments. Your family may surprise you once they understand how hard you are working, and perhaps even take some of your household tasks off your hands.

Can you Reduce Your Work Hours? We would never urge you to reduce your work hours if that would lead to you or your family going without essentials. However, if you do have some financial leeway, consider whether it makes sense in the long run for you to reduce your hours now. This would be a sacrifice in the short term, but it could pay off handsomely if it allows you to complete your coursework successfully and graduate more quickly. Once you graduate, you’ll be free to work full time without the additional responsibilities of a college schedule, and you may well be able to earn more with your college degree in hand.

Should You Withdraw from a Class? If your other responsibilities are non-negotiable, consider whether it makes sense to withdraw from one of your classes. Remember that withdrawing means that you won’t earn credit for the class, so it will take longer for you to graduate. But if you don’t see a realistic possibility of completing the coursework successfully it may make sense to withdraw. If you receive financial aid, make sure to speak with the Financial Aid Office to learn if withdrawing from a class will reduce your aid. Consult with a Student Success coach or your Academic Advisor on the process of Withdrawal, and if you decide to take this step make sure to complete the steps to withdraw officially. This will demonstrate your seriousness and professionalism as a student. If you simply stop attending class without actually withdrawing you will receive a grade of WU, or Unofficial Withdrawal, which reflects poorly on you.



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The Companion for the First Year at City Tech Copyright © by Office of First Year Programs is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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