My name is Tom O’Leary and this is the Time Academy podcast. Today we are talking about Urgent vs. Important.
This distinction goes to the heart of any discussion on time and productivity.
The challenge, however, is clearly that urgency and importance are almost always subjective. Except perhaps where we are talking about some outside threat like a war, storm or flood, they are very much in the eye of the beholder. What I feel is important may seem like a waste of energy to someone else. Equally, what is urgent for you might not be for me.
One quick rule of thumb I find is that urgent activities are often associated with the achievement of someone else’s goals whereas Important activities often have an outcome that leads to the achievement of our own goals. So it can be helpful to be clear about boundaries – what is yours to do in the world and what is not. We all continually have situations across our lives in which others try to push their sense of urgency on to us so. When that happens I always ask myself:
Who or what is this urgent for?
This simply brings clarity as to who’s agenda we are being asked to follow. Also, if the answer isn’t “This is urgent for me”, ask yourself what would motivate you to do it? You may feel you have no choice regardless – if for example you are asked by your boss or a major client – but that awareness can nevertheless be helpful in deciding whether or not to take action or leave this to someone else.
At the same time, we might not consider something urgent but we may have a sense that it is somehow important so how do we navigate the frontier between urgency and importance. Where does one start and the other finish?
For me, the Eisenhower matrix is the first port of call. It is a great way of triaging when you feel absolutely overwhelmed. After a life managing major military operations, Dwight D. Eisenhower, 34th President of the United States, had an acute sense of what was urgent and what was important. He knew it was perfectly natural, particularly in times of crisis or busyness, to feel – and I quote:
“compelled to give our first attention to the urgent present rather than to the important future.”
And that was before the world filled up with email and mobile devices, which have created a much greater sense of urgency in daily life with every ping sort of demanding immediate attention.
So to distinguish between importance and urgency we are being asked to step back from the fray for a moment and in a sense say “It is important to stop for a moment to decide what is important or urgent and what is not.”
You may well have seen the Eisenhower matrix – if you haven’t click here. Note: Scroll down to #3. An Excel template is available for download at the end of the section.
In any event, the matrix is really simple. It has 4 quadrants consisting of:
- “Important and Urgent”;
- “Important and Not Urgent”;
- “Not Important and Urgent”; and
- You have probably guessed it “Not Important and Not Urgent”.
The idea is that you note down all the tasks on your plate and place them in the appropriate quadrant. Different actions are then attached to each quadrant.
So let’s go through each one in turn.
Quadrant 1: Important and Urgent
These are activities that simply must be done by you, with pressing deadlines and consequences if left undone. The matrix would suggest you make sure these activities get done in a timely manner.
- Important emails requiring replies
- Project deadlines
- Bid submission deadlines
At the same time, unless they are incredibly time-sensitive it can be helpful to chunk certain activities together to calm your day a little more. For example, replying to emails at set times during the day or every hour rather than having your inbox open all the time. The same goes for returning calls and other activities.
Quadrant 2: Important and Not Urgent
These are activities that will help you accomplish what you want but that can be done from a place of calm. These are typically the tasks that add real value and hold their importance over time.
- Team building
- Strategic reflection
- Client prospecting
The suggestion here is that you schedule these activities for a later date. They are important so block out the time they deserve so they aren’t rushed.
Quadrant 3: Not Important and Urgent
These are activities that need to be done but not necessarily by you. They would ideally be handed over to someone with a more appropriate skillset.
- Call scheduling
- Action item follow-up
- Event planning
It is just important when delegating that you do it in a way that works for you. Ask yourself what status updates do I need? Then schedule those and forget about them – “John will send me an update me at 5pm on Friday”. This avoids you continually checking in or calling meetings to see how things are going. Remember these aren’t important – these are the tasks that are needed to keep the show on the road but won’t echo all that much over time.
Quadrant 4 Not Important and Not Urgent
These are activities that somehow crept onto your to do list but aren’t yours to do. They are basically activities that serve to distract you from more important work.
- Tasks that are outside your job description
- Attending meetings where you have nothing to say (just read the minutes)
We all have a ton of other mundane tasks that we’re asked to do by our boss, our partner or whoever and the invitation here is to simply return them to sender whenever you can. This may require a conversation to establish boundaries and set expectations and that may feel uncomfortable. And yet, if we are to protect our energy and attention those are the conversations we need to be having. Ultimately, protecting ourselves is critical. It helps if we are clear about our big-picture priorities and then create the processes within each day so that we can work on them no matter what else might be going on. Part of this also down to daily reflection as to what we are being called to do that day.
So In closing, the invitation is to carry these two questions with you:
What is important for me today?
What is urgent for me today?