Most Important Tasks
Written by Jim Knight.
October 11, 2010

Most of us, I expect, feel that we are behind something that needs to be done isn’t getting done, or, worse, someone who needs us isn’t getting the necessary attention.

Being out of time, feeling like we are behind, feels horrible.  We feel like we are letting people down, like we are incompetent, and energy and self-esteem can take a hard hit as a result.  Ironically, when we are overwhelmed, we can lose so much energy that any task can seem overwhelming, so we procrastinate which means, of course, that we end up even further behind.

For many years, I tore into myself for what I considered a lack of discipline or a lack of time management skills. My story was that I had a character flaw, and I just couldn’t get my act together.  As hard as I tried to do everything, I was never able to get it all done.

I have come to understand my life differently.  What I now recognize is that some things will inevitably not get done.  Some task will be done late, some email will not be responded to, some voice mail will be erased before I call back, etc. I will do my best, but there are only so many minutes, so many hours, and so many days in which to get everything done.  The truth is, not everything will get done.

Understanding that there simply isn’t enough time to do everything all the time has helped me in two ways.  First, I now plan my day totally differently than I used to when I was committed to the impossible task of trying to do everything. Since I recognize that I simply can’t do everything, my goal now is to make sure that what counts gets done.  Every day I want to make sure that I do my most important tasks.

Leo Babauta, the author of the very useful zen habits blog suggests that every day we should identify our “MITs,” that is, our Most Important Tasks.  If we want to do important stuff, we need to be clear about what that stuff is so that we don’t get distracted by other less important tasks.

Too often, it seems, it is the most important tasks that we do not feel we have time for. We never find the time to prepare exciting and challenging lessons, to read new ideas to fire up our creativity, to spend time with our family, or to work on our own growth and development.

To ensure that we do what is most important, Babauta suggests that we identify no more than three MITs for each day and commit to doing them no matter what. In his book The Power of Less Babauta writes:

Here’s the beauty of MITs:  Usually, the small, unimportant tasks that we need to get done every day (email, phone calls, paperwork, errands, meetings, Internet browsing, etc.) will get in the way of our important longer-term tasks but if you make your MITs your top priorities each day, the important stuff will get done instead of the unimportant.

I find it helpful to write down my Most Important Tasks and then check them off when they are done. I may do everything I hope to accomplish in a day, but by focusing on my MITs, I can make sure that what matters does get done. This is not perfect, but taking care of the MITs is, for me, a lot more satisfying than never getting around to what matters most and then feeling guilty on top of it.

Taking care of my MITs has a second benefit. Now, I don’t beat myself up as much about being behind. If I get a voice mail that says, “Hey, I sent you an email earlier today, but you didn’t write back,” I no longer feel guilty for not replying earlier—at least most of the time. I do my best, with the time I have, and that is all I can do. If that doesn’t work for others, that is their issue, not mine.

8 Comments

  1. Denise Carlson

    Thanks so much for this post, Jim. I needed this sage advice today. Now on to my MIT lists!

    Reply
  2. jalex

    Keep thinking about the clarity of purpose….clarity of what is really important plays in decisions

    Reply
  3. Kim W

    Thanks for the morning session! You’ve really stretched my thinking (again)!!!

    Reply
  4. Denise Lambert

    Jim,
    This message couldn’t have come at a better time. I actually cried a little – with relief!
    It is good to know that I am not the ‘Lone Ranger’.
    I am going to try to implement the MITs – I think I will go and do it for tomorrow – right now!
    The problem is limiting them to 3!

    Reply
  5. Jim Knight

    @ Denise, Thank you so much for your warm-hearted response, and you’re not a ‘Lone Ranger’–that is the main message here at Radical Learners. You could of course do more than 3, but I think you can start with three and add more later.

    @ Kim, thank you for presentation at the conference, and your kind words. I’m excited to see the tools you create for self-coaching yourself. I think that others will find them very helpful.

    Reply
  6. Jennifer Sikes

    Jim,
    I’ve often labeled myself an overachiever trapped in a procrastinator’s body! MITs definitely help me. One thought going through my mind as I read this is the fact that I am in the relationship business as an instructional coach. If I have to put my MITs to the side for a while to help a teacher who comes to me with a burning issue, I feel okay about that. I love the feeling of helping others to improve their practice–even if I have to put some of my own personal things aside. It also helps me to not feel as guilty about those other things on the daily list like emails, etc.

    Reply
  7. Jim Knight

    Hi Jennifer, I love your phrase, “an overachiever trapped in a procrastinator’s body,” and I love your emphasis on relationships. I would just add that, of course, often your MIT is all about strengthening a relationship or doing something for someone else.

    Reply
  8. jalex

    I have tried to implement the MIT idea this week….have my piece of paper, write down 3 things, and then, of course, have an “other” category, just in case I get more down! hahaha…anyway, it has helped me. And checking off – accomplishing – three important things each day is such a good feeling. Just as we need to look for the good in our kids, I think it is important to look for the good in ourselves…too often, easy to forget in both circumstances.

    Reply

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