Important vs Urgent
In my most recent blog, I looked at stress; why our minds and bodies are poorly adapted to deal with modern-day stress, and what we can do about it. I’d like to continue this theme by asking why so many of us feel as if we spend all our time reacting to crisis after crisis?
I suspect it’s because we struggle to see that urgent and important are different things. In fact, I may need to convince you they are.
An example of something urgent would be a phone call from a colleague or friend wanting a favour. It triggers your ‘urge’ to react (hence; urgent) and whilst it’s important to them, the consequences to you if you can’t help are not. They’re awkward; not life-changing.
Something important might be ensuring you have a periodic medical healthcheck. It’s not urgent; it’s not critical whether it happens next week, month or even year. But the outcome of never getting around to it may not just be life-changing, it could be life-limiting.
Some things of course are both important and urgent. Like when your healthcheck is due; and you’ve recently had some chest pain.
Put that way, there’s a difference. But why do we struggle to see it? It’s because we didn’t evolve to juggle long-term essentials with short-term niceties. If the tiger from last week’s blog jumped out, it was urgent and important. Humans lived in a world without distinction. There was no long term. When you live from season to season, driven by scarcity of food and a need for shelter – if a task needs doing, it needs doing now. So our brains evolved to rely on instinct. “If it feels urgent, then it’s important”.
That sort of mental short cut is what psychologists call a heuristic; it’s an in-built thought pattern we are totally unaware of. This is a problem to today’s complex multi-tasking humans; our default instinct makes urgent always feel important. We feel anxious, we get stressed. Then we get so overwhelmed we hit options paralysis.
Luckily, there is a way out. Imagine you had a fool-proof strategy to differentiate between urgent and important; a set of questions to categorise any problem, a framework of clear priorities. Welcome to the Eisenhower Principle. Yes, as in 5 Star General and US President.
“I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”
Dwight D. Eisenhower not only said the above quote, he organised his workload, priorities and activity according to a matrix which now carries his name. There are now many variants of this; here’s mine:
A – IMPORTANT & URGENT
Crises, deadlines & problems
Require an immediate
B – IMPORTANT, NOT URGENT
Planning, strategy, goals
Set aside protected time
C – URGENT, NOT IMPORTANT
Interruptions, calls, meetings
Issues relating to other people’s priorities:
D – NOT URGENT OR IMPORTANT
Requests, distractions, trivia
Seriously, you need to ask?
A mistake many people make is thinking of this matrix as a time management tool. They see that Box C tasks are easy and quick; so they think it’s productive to clear their inbox, take calls and answer questions. Sadly, they are kidding themselves. Great leaders know productivity is not really about the efficiency of getting lots done; it’s mostly about the effectiveness of focusing on the right priorities.
Effective leaders focus on issues that are important, not just urgent. To do this, you must list all your activities, projects, and any other issue that occupies your time. Then, put each issue, activity or project into one of the four boxes, by asking the following questions:
Q1. Is it important?
Important activities are essential tasks with an outcome that supports long-term objectives, missions and goals. It stands to reason that if you haven’t thought about goals, then you can’t determine what’s important. For now, you have a short to-do list: before you can prioritise, set some goals. This blog may help.
If you determine that something is important, it can be assigned to Box A or Box B depending on whether it is also urgent.
Q2. Is it urgent?
Urgent issues leave no choice but to act, because consequences of not dealing with them are immediate. There are two types of urgent; things that could not be foreseen, and work you left until the last minute. I’m not going to lecture; but better prioritisation would allow more time to sort out real emergencies.
- If you decide an issue is urgent, and you also answered ‘yes’ to Q1 then it clearly lives in Box A.
- If you answered ‘yes’ to Q1 but you decide an issue is not urgent, place it in Box B.
- If Q1 determines that something is important, but you don’t know if it is also urgent, ask yourself: “If I delayed dealing with it, would the remedy take longer, cost more or have worse consequences than if I dealt with it now?” Use this answer as your Q2 answer.
- If it’s urgent and you answered ‘no’ to Q1, then it lives in Box C.
- If you get a ‘no’ for Q1 & Q2, an issue is not important or urgent. Before putting it straight in Box D, you should ask Q3:
Q3. What would happen if it wasn’t done?
Most Box D issues are things other people want; if they weren’t done, your own goals or outcomes are unaffected. Box D can fill up because we don’t like to let people down. If the answer to Q3 is ‘nothing’ then say a polite ‘no’ and leave the issue out the matrix.
Now that you’ve sorted all your issues into the appropriate boxes, how should you deal with each type?
Important and Urgent
BOX A issues sit at the top of your to-do list; you have no choice. Since you can’t predict or avoid most unexpected issues, the best approach is to schedule time for unplanned events and reschedule other tasks in the event of a crisis. If lots of tasks are urgent and important, ask what changes would help them to be foreseen.
Important but not Urgent
BOX B priorities need time set aside to make sure they get done; they’re the ones that provide fulfilment and success in our business and real lives. The most successful leaders spend more time on Box B tasks than any other category. That should tell you everything you need to know. It’s hard to overcome the ‘present bias’ of new and pressing issues, and the habit of maintaining focus on strategic tasks takes willpower and discipline. But it will be worth it.
Urgent but not Important
BOX C tasks prevent you from achieving your goals. They nearly always arise from the demands of others; interruptions, emails, phone calls and unplanned meetings. Ask yourself whether you can reschedule or delegate them. No-one wants to be a rude boss or colleague, but there are ways to encourage people to solve problems themselves. “Show one, share one, ship one” is a way to demonstrate, collaborate and then delegate new tasks to someone.
Alternatively, keep slots available for update meetings so people know when they can meet with you, and when not to interrupt.
Not Important, Not Urgent
BOX D issues are mostly a distraction. Some business activity in this category could simply be cancelled; tasks may be a product of history, like obsolete processes or reports which nobody uses.
If you are in a role where other people set your workload, it is more difficult to manage Box D since it involves turning down requests. Developing a polite-but-firm way to say ‘no’ by being clear about your own priorities and objectives will help set future boundaries.
If we are honest, many Box D issues are things we do to ourselves; like refreshing social media and browsing online. It’s hard to resist distraction when we are in front of a screen. We must learn to set boundaries and be firm about them. It’s a matter of self-respect.
I hope you found Eisenhower’s Principle a useful tool to help guide where your priority, time and activity should be focused. Successful leaders are the ones that stay focused on important long-term goals.
Ike should know; he won a war, led a country and named a matrix.