A colleague of mine from another college came back from a work/life balance seminar where the speaker focused on four different quadrants in which to divide work. Urgent, Important; Urgent, Unimportant; Not Urgent, Not Important; Not Urgent; Important. The speaker argued that too many people focus only on the first two areas, rightfully ignore the third, but also skip out on the fourth which may be the most important area to focus on. In actuality, my colleague was mocking the talk as yet another waste of his time. For me, though, I was hungry for any new (to me, at least) outlook. As the Chair of a large academic department at a small liberal arts college, an Associate Professor, and the mother of three young children (8, 6, and 4) juggling and prioritizing are a daily part of my life.
Immediately, I applied it to my Chair work. I decided that each week I would focus on something that could be important to the department but that I never have time to focus on. I started thinking up ways I could just meet with students who were not in the middle of a crisis (“Chats with the Chair”). I encouraged us to think about a new website and curriculum priorities that were not urgent but mattered. While not a panacea, the new prioritization made me start to feel as if some of the time I was not just responding to fires but leading the department.
Then, one day in the middle of the night (a time, where according to new studies, many moms are up trying to balance all their competing thoughts), I worried had my children become “Not Urgent, Important”? Sure, all their immediate (urgent) needs were met. They were well fed (okay- maybe Kids Meals are not ideal source of nutrition but I never let them put the sprinkles on the pudding), finished their homework on time, took baths most evenings, and had a balance of non-screen time mixed in with educational toy time. Yet, at home, I’m always so busy trying to check off my to-do list (donate pajamas for pajama day, figure out how to get silly putty out of pants pockets (hint: freeze them), wash clothes in hot water because of head lice outbreak, make sure new babysitter is added to emergency card list for school) that do I ever just focus on their non-urgent needs? I’ve now applied my new quadrant to my home life. At least once a week, I try to sit with each child, just to focus on something that is non-urgent but important to them. I’ve learned what the “cheese touch” is, have a new familiarity with Pokemon cards, and doing a sticker mosaic is actually quite relaxing- at the very least- it’s a task that I can finish-which is more than I can say about the next departmental assessment report.
Laura Tropp, Ph.D. is and Associate Professor and Chair of the Communication Arts Department at Marymount Manhattan College. She writes and teaches on motherhood issues and is the author of the book, A Womb with a View: America’s Growing Public Interest in Pregnancy.