Task Mastery

I have a confession to make: I’m a todo-list-aholic.

Over the past three years or so, I’ve tried no fewer than five different task management programs to keep track of what I’m doing and when I need to get it done. I’ve even stuck with several of them for more than a week.

Tongue-in-cheek comments aside, even though I’ve yet to really integrate using a task manager into my daily life and build it as a consistent habit, these experiences have taught me a lot about categorizing and prioritizing tasks. One of the most important frameworks for doing this is called Getting Things Done, or GTD. The very first step to any GTD methodology is “braindumping” all the tasks that are on your mind — yes, really, all of them. (If you’re interested in doing a braindump for your own life, the article I linked is a very good guide for doing so.)

Creating this comprehensive list is, in itself, an admirable feat. I get a very real sense of relief and satisfaction just by writing down everything that’s on my mind and visualizing it on paper. After that initial feeling of euphoria, though, finishing a braindump often leaves me feeling like a puppy that’s finally caught a car: it’s not immediately clear what I should do with it.

So, I started searching for ways to prioritize tasks more effectively. While there are many strategies for this, today I’d like to focus on the one that I think has the most relevance for Magic tournaments. It’s called the time management matrix, and it evaluates tasks along two different axes: importance and urgency. This gives you four different quadrants for categorizing tasks. Before diving into each of these quadrants, take a look at what the matrix looks like overall:

Time Management Matrix(Reproduced from “The Search for Efficiency and Effectiveness” under the Creative Commons license.)

Important but Not Urgent: The Green Zone

Think about what you do that brings you the most fulfillment. The tasks that you find most important and enjoyable, perhaps not even like work at all. What are the things that matter most to you, that your mind keeps returning to again and again, even if you’re busy doing other things? These are the aspects of your life that bring you the most satisfaction and fulfillment. In the matrix, these tasks generally fall into Quadrant 2, the “important but not urgent” tasks. I visualize this quadrant as the Green Zone because it represents the ideal place to spend your time and grow.

Some examples of this quadrant include things like calling your parents, cultivating a relationship with your boyfriend, or starting a big new project. These tasks generally don’t have an expiration date, so it’s easy to let them fall to the wayside amidst the other busy-ness of our lives…which is likely to have a negative impact on our long-term happiness. The time management matrix is a helpful way of categorizing and visualizing how much time we’re actually spending on these tasks, versus the other quadrants.

For judges, some important but not urgent tasks include checking in with your Team Leads or team members at a large event, giving other judges one-on-one feedback, and writing reviews. Especially if you’re Head Judging an event that’s larger than expected, it’s very easy to get wrapped up in minutiae of appeals and other logistical matters. Taking a step back to look at the larger picture is vital.

Important and Urgent: The Red Zone

When we focus on important work, but let our choice of that work be driven primarily by external demands, we’ve fallen into the “urgent and important” quadrant. This quadrant comprises deadlines, sudden emergencies, and other “hair on fire” moments, which can come up at school, at work, in our personal lives, or, yes, at Magic tournaments. I tend to think of this quadrant as the Red Zone because it’s not actually a very happy place to be. The work is important, and it certainly needs to get done, but we’d be much happier if we didn’t have to complete tasks under so much stress.

In the context of Magic events, appeals are the poster children for urgent and important tasks. Being able to gracefully handle appeals while juggling the other demands of running an event is a critical skill for Head Judges to develop. The end of round process can also sometimes feel like an “important and urgent” task, especially if it gets started late or there’s a ton of tables remaining — but it doesn’t always have to be that way. More on that later.

Urgent but Not Important

Another type of urgency stems from tasks or people that demand our attention or require our presence. These include emails, text messages, meetings, your phone ringing, and other interruptions. Although technically “urgent,” these activities are often unimportant and unfulfilling compared to the other quadrants. On the diagram above, this is Quadrant 3.

For the Head Judge of an SCG Open or Grand Prix, starting the round clock falls into this quadrant.

Task management experts recommend delegating tasks in this quadrant as much as possible. While that’s a nice thought, delegating everything in this quadrant is surely infeasible for most of us (I don’t see myself hiring a secretary to answer my emails any time soon). Some other practices for overcoming the challenges of this quadrant focus on minimizing the time we spend here, perhaps by reducing distractions or simply becoming more efficient at executing routine tasks.

Neither Urgent Nor Important

Finally, we have the quadrant that no one likes and has no friends. These are the tasks that are neither pressing nor significant. The experts recommend that, similar to how we treat its close neighbor, Quadrant 3, our goal should be to minimize our time here. I think this is a reasonable approach for our daily or professional lives, but I don’t believe it applies very well to judging.

Many judges go through a period where they realize that judging large events doesn’t mean taking rules questions or resolving policy disputes all the time. If anything, taking judge calls is likely to actually be a tiny minority of your time at an event (although maybe a large portion of your mental energy). The space before, between, and after judge calls involves many other tasks that have little to do with Magic per se: straightening tablecloths, picking up trash, setting up zip banners, dropping table tents, and so on. This disconnect between expectation and reality can be very jarring. Judges who are especially fixated on “real” judging might even (incorrectly) categorize working side events, managing a registration line, or staffing the Prize Wall this way.

Eventually, though, those same judges tend to come out the other side and see the value of all aspects of running an event. Picking up the booster pack wrappings that players left behind may never feel as viscerally satisfying as nailing a given ruling, but both have a direct impact on the enjoyment of the players in the event. Judging is work, and hard work to boot, but it should also be fun. If you feel unfulfilled at an event, let your friendly neighborhood Team Lead, Head Judge, or Judge Manager know; they’ll do what they can to address your concerns.

Being Proactive

I’ve argued that it’s better to focus on important-but-not-urgent (Green Zone) tasks rather than important-and-urgent (Red Zone) ones. But how do we actually get from Red to Green?

Apart from using Lifelace, the answer lies in being proactive. The dichotomy between the Green Zone and Red Zone is fundamentally about whether you’re addressing issues proactively or reactively. Tasks within the Green Zone are, overall, equally important as those in the Red Zone. The difference is solely in whether those tasks are, or have been allowed to become, urgent.

If you squash issues before they explode, or even just get a jump start on them before the deadline, they never have a chance to become urgent. Everything stays Green and hunky-dory. This is what I alluded to earlier, when I said that the end-of-round process (EOR) can sometimes feel like it’s in the Red Zone — but it doesn’t have to be that way. If the team in charge of EOR gets a head start and has established a good process, it’s likely that EOR will feel like a Green Zone task: vitally important, but not like your hair is on fire. From this point of view, EOR is not an urgent deadline, but a naturally occurring part of the anatomy of a round.

These last few paragraphs apply to events of all shapes and sizes, but they’re especially important if you’re interested in Head Judging large events, or in becoming Level 3 someday. Preempting problems and forward thinking are two of the critical skills that aspiring L3s are evaluated on when Team Leading during Day 2 of a Grand Prix.

Of course, being proactive isn’t easy. One way to become more proactive is assess potential failure modes of your event or your team before the event begins, and monitor any situations with especially high risk priority numbers.

Another method I’ve had success with involves using spreadsheets to track whether I’m checking in with my Team Leads (and vice versa) and our overall round turnover. Provided I don’t spend too much time fiddling with my computer, this approach works for me because it helps me visualize the bigger picture of the event. I alluded earlier to the idea that most judges love taking rulings, and I’m definitely in that category as well. Taking appeals is one of the most challenging yet rewarding aspects of Head Judging a large event, so it’s easy for me to get caught up in individual rulings (i.e., Red Zone tasks). Checking a spreadsheet that lists my Team Leads’ names and the round numbers reminds me to pull back and think about the whole event, not what’s right in front of me at the moment.

A third idea is building a strong team of judges to support you and keep you grounded — which is a solid plan in general. This idea cemented itself in my mind in a particularly helpful yet dramatic way during Legacy Championships at Eternal Weekend. Around the end of round 4, Nicholas Sabin, the event’s judge manager, fairly kicked me off the stage, because I had been nibbling at a sandwich for the past hour, rather than taking a real break. I believe his specific phrasing was, “You need to be better at eating.” (Thanks, Nicholas.)

There are certainly other ways to hone your ability to proactively address problems at Magic events. What are your strategies for being proactive at events, or in your daily lives? What do you think about the time management matrix in general? I’d love to know, so share your thoughts in the comments!

Wrapping Up

As with other concepts presented on Bearz Repeating, the time management matrix should be treated as one of many gadgets in your utility belt, not as an infallible gospel. Simple labels like “important” and “urgent” will never capture the true fullness of our lives. The matrix is a way of looking at the world and making it simpler to understand; it is not the world itself.

Ultimately, task management is a very personal matter. Just like I can’t tell you what you should prioritize in your personal life, even very experienced judges can choose to emphasize different aspects of judging. One team lead could be very focused on learning about the judges on their team and building camaraderie; another might prioritize sharing interesting rules and policy scenarios, and making sure everyone learns something. One Head Judge will challenge everyone to write a review from the event; a second will really want the player meeting to go well; a third will emphasize round turnover. Some judges will come to an event seeking self-improvement, while others might be focused on improving others.

None of these approaches is wrong. They’re all just different ways of examining the wonderful kaleidoscope that is judging Magic events.