Address “Important”; Ignore “Urgent.”
These are entirely separate things that we often fuse together. Important is what truly matters, even if the payoff or deadline is not so immediate. Urgent only refers to the speed of response that is desired. You can easily use an Eisenhower Matrix to clarify your priorities and ignore urgent tasks, unless they so happen to also be important.
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Even when we are relaxing, we can fall into sudden panic and feel a rush of adrenaline when we try to make a decision. We can be as cool as a cucumber, lounging in a pool, and still have this feeling. Why is that?
This is our brain fooling us into one of the most dangerous fallacies – one that will keep you perpetually focusing on what doesn’t matter. Everything, seemingly, is an emergency to be handled as soon as humanly possible, and horrible consequences will follow if you don’t personally act.
The mistake is thinking of “important” and “urgent” as synonymous and not realizing the huge gulf of difference between the two terms and how you should prioritize them. The ability to distinguish the two is a key step in lowering your anxiety, stopping procrastination, and making sure that you are acting in an optimized way.
This mental model probably has the most cache in the realm of productivity, where time is at a premium. We spend far too much time on urgent tasks when we should be focusing on important tasks.
Important task: These contribute directly to our short-term or long-term goals. They are absolutely imperative to our work, responsibilities, or lives. They cannot be skipped and should be prioritized. They may not need to be done immediately and thus don’t appear to be important. This makes it easy to fall into the trap of ignoring the important for the urgent. But they are what truly impact your various bottom lines, and serious negative repercussions would follow from skipping them.
Urgent task: These simply demand immediacy and speed, and usually come from other people. Of course, this naturally creates a reaction on your end that can make us forget what’s important. They can overlap with an important task, but they can also just demand your immediate attention without deserving it. These are usually smaller and easier to complete, so often we turn to them out of procrastination, and it allows us to feel quasi-productive even though we’ve ignored what we really need to be doing. Many urgent tasks can be delayed, delegated, or flat-out ignored.
As a quick example, if you are an author under a tight deadline, an important task for you would be to continue writing your book. You need to hit 5,000 words a day for the next two weeks or else you are going to be eating bread and oatmeal. This would qualify as a priority.
An urgent task would be dealing with that annoying “check engine” light that keeps flickering on and off in your car. Your car can probably survive a few more trips, and even though the light winking can be seductive, you need to resist it, because this is urgent masquerading as important.
Typically, you’ll find that an important activity or project might not have that many urgent tasks connected with it. This tends to cause confusion of priorities. Luckily, there is a tried and true method of distinguishing between urgent and important, and the method draws its name from one of the most famous American presidents, Dwight D. Eisenhower. It’s called the Eisenhower Matrix, and it will help you prioritize and identify what you really need to be juggling at the moment.
Eisenhower was a five-star general during World War II before being elected president and serving two presidential terms from 1953 to 1961. In addition to leading the Allied forces to victory in the war, Eisenhower oversaw the creation of NASA, the American interstate highway system, and new civil rights legislation while navigating the United States through the Korean conflict and the instigation of the Cold War.
To master his impossibly complicated schedule, Eisenhower developed a system that helped him sort his activities and demands into matters that were most important and identify the most vital processes to serve those important elements. It also helped him determine which less-essential tasks he could either designate someone else to complete or eliminate entirely. In other words, important versus urgent.
Some tasks could lead to new civil rights legislation but never quite appear urgent. Other tasks could appear to be screamingly urgent but would never make a difference either way. Any person, especially one as impactful as the President of the United States, should simply know what matters.
Eisenhower’s matrix is easy for anyone to employ and goes a long way toward improving efficiency and accomplishment. The template is a simple two-by-two grid divided between “important” goals and “urgent” tasks, as seen below.
Important tasks. The top row of the matrix represents the most important obligations or responsibilities one has in their life. These are things that require our most mindful and active attention. For work, these might include the most pertinent aspects of our job descriptions – overseeing a budget, managing a long-term project that defines our business, or maintaining constant operations. For personal matters, it could mean directing our health (or that of our loved ones), sustaining a relationship or marriage, selling a house, or establishing a business. Whatever things most impact every other thing in our lives or work are the most important.
However, just because something is extremely important doesn’t mean every activity that supports it needs to be done immediately. Some can be put on the backburner (indefinitely, even), some aren’t even ready to be dealt with, and some depend on other people moving first. In short, you can’t do them all right now. That’s where the “urgency” metric comes in: the top row of the matrix is thus divided according to what can happen now and what can be delayed (but must happen at some point in the future).
Urgent: Do. Objects in the “do” quadrant are things that absolutely need to be done posthaste. They must be completed to stave off unfavorable outcomes or uncontrollable circumstances, and the sooner they’re done, the less work (and more relief) there will be in the future. “Do” tasks typically revolve around deadlines: final term papers, court filings, car registrations, school applications, and so forth.
They also include emergencies or activities that need to be completed to avert disaster. “Do” tasks are best thought of as duties that need to be completed immediately, by the end of today, or tomorrow at the very latest. They cause anxiety because they’re high-effort duties that you dread doing but need to do nevertheless.
Not urgent: Plan. Tasks that reside in the second quadrant need to be done at some point – but not necessarily now. The world isn’t going to collapse if they’re not done today; they’re not on a strict deadline to be completed. Still, they have to be done at some point, usually relatively soon, so they need to be scheduled. “Plan” tasks include setting up a future meeting with a big client, arranging a time for a roof leak to be fixed, studying or reading class materials or work documents, or maintenance duties that cover the long term.
Schedule them after the fires are put out. Plan them for the near future, but not so imminent that it interferes with your truly urgent and important tasks. “Plan” tasks are also key components of your medium-to-long range plans: when you’re planning a week or a month or advance, “plan” tasks should be put on your timetable.
The danger with these “not urgent” tasks is deprioritizing them too much. They’re important to keep normal operations afloat, and if they’re discarded or forgotten, they may well turn into emergency tasks in short order. Take the “check engine” light in your car from earlier – anecdotally, I have driven with that light on for close to a year and nothing terrible has happened, so even though it’s theoretically important, it doesn’t demand urgent attention.
Not-important tasks. The bottom row of Eisenhower’s matrix represents tasks that aren’t that significant to you personally. That doesn’t mean they’re unimportant to other people (though it might), but they’re activities that might be more appropriate or meaningful for somebody else to finish up. Other people will certainly attempt to present them as important to you, but they’re often just projecting their own self-interests. Is there an impact on you? Minimal, if any. The not-important tier is also divided up by relative urgency.
Urgent: Delegate. Perhaps the most befuddling square in this matrix is the “not-important but urgent” box. It perhaps makes the most sense in a work environment: these are tasks that might really need to be done, but it’s not vital for you to take care of them yourself, even if you could. If you did complete them yourself, they might impose on the “important” items that you absolutely have to do either now or later.
For those reasons, items in this box should be eliminated, preferably by being delegated to somebody else. When you’re working as the leader of a team, you should be able to find someone else to handle these tasks for you.
Not-important/urgent tasks can be identified by measuring how vital they are to what’s happening now. These can very generally be described as interruptions: phone calls, emails, ongoing family situations, and so forth. During times of inactivity these all may be important to focus on, but at the moment they could distract or misdirect you from what you have to get accomplished toward your overall goals.
You may be fielding customer support emails even though you are the CEO of the 100-person company. These customer support emails represent extremely angry and disturbed clients, and they’re urgent to everyone involved – except you.
There really is no point or importance for you to be involved in this daily minutia, and thus, you must eliminate it from your schedule through delegation.
Not urgent: Eliminate. Finally, there are some activities and functions that are neither important nor time-sensitive to the priorities at hand. What are they even there for? Mostly to distract you or serve as an escape from doing what you need to do: leisure activity, social media, binge-watching, long phone calls, extensive hobby time, and so forth. In the name of efficiency and prioritizing, these things are dead weight – we might not always be optimizing for those things, but it is still helpful to simply know.
These are just things that grab your attention for one reason or another and try to force a response; they’re even hard to name sometimes because they feel so insignificant and fleeting. But they add up. (If you ever want to shock yourself and see how much they add up, install trackers on your phone and computer to see how much time you log on truly useless pursuits.)
These are the activities you shouldn’t account for in your schedule at all and should only be done when everything else is completed. Only keep items that are important to the bottom-line success of your project or life. This doesn’t mean you can’t ever do them (and you’d be mistaken not to allow yourself a little bit of escapism now and then). But when you’re in the middle of other important items that need your attention or oversight, take them off your plate completely. They’ll be more meaningful and rewarding when you’ve finished the important tasks anyway.
Just because something appears to demand a quick response doesn’t mean you should give it, and just because something is slowly ticking in the background doesn’t mean you should ignore it. Learn to balance the two for optimal decisions.