How to Distinguish Between Urgent and Important Tasks and Make Real Progress in Your Life
“What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.”
Many spend all their time managing crises.
Their life is basically spent putting out one proverbial fire after another. At the end of the day they feel completely sapped and drained of energy, and yet cannot point to anything they accomplished of real significance. They confuse the urgent with the important.
The Difference Between Urgent and Important
An “Urgent” task is one that requires your immediate attention. These are the tasks that shout “Do It Now!” Urgent tasks put you in a reactive mode, a defensive, negative, hurried, and narrowly focused mindset.
An “Important” task is something that is to be done that contributes to your long-term mission, values, and goals. While they may sometimes be, typically, important tasks are not urgent. When you focus on important activities you operate in a responsive mode that helps you remain calm, rational, and open to new opportunities.
As a result of all these modern stimulus-producing technologies such as 24-hour News, Twitter, Facebook, social media and text messaging technologies process all information as equally urgent and pressing, you tend to believe that all urgent activities are important. These modern news and social media stimulus-producing technologies constantly assault you with information that only heighten your deeply engrained mindset that is: to believe that all urgent activities are also important.
As a result, you are experiencing “present shock”, a condition in which “you live in a continuous, always-on ‘Now!!’” and lose your sense of long-term narrative and direction. In such a state, it is easy to lose sight of the distinction between the truly important and the merely urgent and the consequences of this priority-blindness are both personal and societal. In your own lives, you suffer from burnout and stagnation and, on a societal level, we are unable to solve the truly important problems of our time.
The Eisenhower Decision Matrix
Dwight Eisenhower lived one of the most productive lives you can imagine.
Eisenhower was the 34th President of the United States, serving two terms from 1953 to 1961. During his time in office, he launched programs that directly led to the development of the Interstate Highway System, the launch of the internet (DARPA), the exploration of space (NASA), and the peaceful use of alternative energy sources (Atomic Energy Act).
Before becoming president, Eisenhower was a five-star general in the United States Army. He served as the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II, and was responsible for planning and executing invasions of North Africa, France, and Germany. Along the way, he served as President of Columbia University, became the first Supreme Commander of NATO, and somehow found time to pursue hobbies like golfing and oil painting.
Eisenhower had this incredible ability to sustain his productivity for weeks, months and decades. His most famous productivity strategy is known as “The Eisenhower Box” or “The Eisenhower Matrix”, a simple decision-making tool that you can use right now to empower yourself and make real progress on your life.
The matrix consists of a square divided into four boxes, or quadrants, labeled as follow:
2) Not Urgent/Important;
3) Urgent/Not Important, and
4) Not Urgent/Not Important.
Quadrant 1: “Urgent and Important” Tasks
“Tasks that are both urgent and important require our immediate attention and also work towards fulfilling our long-term goals and missions in life.”
This is the “Do It Now!” box
“Urgent and Important” tasks typically consist of crises, problems, or deadlines. A few specific examples of Urgent and Important tasks would be:
- Certain emails such as a job offer, an email for a new business opportunity that requires immediate action, etc.;
- A term paper deadline;
- A Tax deadline;
- A member of your family in an hospital ICU;
- Your car engine giving out;
- Household chores;
- A heart attack and ending up in the hospital;
- A call from your kid’s principal saying you need to come in for a meeting about his behavior.
With a bit of planning and organization, many of these Quadrant 1 tasks can be made more efficient or even eliminated outright. For example, instead of waiting until the last minute to work on your term paper, thus turning it into an urgent task, you could schedule your time so that you will be done with your paper a week in advance. Or, instead of waiting for something in your house to need fixing or fall apart, you can implement and follow a schedule of regular maintenance.
While you will never be able to completely eliminate urgent and important tasks, with a bit of imagination and proactivity you can significantly reduce them by spending more time in Quadrant 2.
Quadrant 2: “Not Urgent but Important” Tasks
Tasks that are “Not Urgent bur Important” are these activities that do not have a pressing deadline, but nonetheless help you achieve your important personal, school, and work goals as well as help you fulfill your overall mission in life.
This is the “Schedule It!” box.
The “Not Urgent but Important” tasks are typically centered around strengthening relationships, planning for the future, and improving yourself.
A few specific examples of Not Urgent but Important Tasks would be:
- Weekly planning;
- Long-term planning;
- Family time;
- Taking a class to improve a skill;
- Spending time with a rewarding hobby;
- Car and home maintenance;
- Creating a budget and savings plan.
Always seek to spend most of your time on “Not Urgent but Important” activities. They are the ones that will provide you lasting happiness, fulfillment and success. Unfortunately for many, there are two key challenges that will tend to keep you from investing enough time and energy into these activities:
- First: “You don’t know what’s truly important to you.” If you do not have any idea what values and goals matter most to you, you obviously will not know what things you should be spending your time on to reach those aims! Instead, you will latch on to whatever stimuli and to-dos are most urgent.
- Second: “Present bias.” For most of us, we are all inclined to focus on whatever is most pressing at the moment. Doing so is our default mode. It is hard to get motivated to do something when there is not a deadline pending over our head. Departing from this fallback position takes willpower and self-discipline. Cultivate these qualities. They hat do not come naturally. Do whatever you have to do to develop this mental toughness and discipline that you may be lacking of.
Because “Not Urgent but Important” activities are not pressing for your attention, you typically keep them forever on the back-burner of your lives and tell yourselves, “I will get to those things “Someday”. You even put off figuring out what is most important in your life and life in general.
But “Someday” will never come.
If you are waiting to do the important thinks until your schedule clears up, trust me when I say that it will never happen, that you are daydreaming. Whatever happens in your life, you will always feel about as busy as you are now, and if anything, life just gets busier as you get older.
To overcome our inherent present-bias that prevents us from focusing on “Not urgent and Important” activities, you must live your lives intentionally and proactively. You cannot run your life in default mode. You have to consciously decide, “I am going to make time for these things”.
Quadrant 3: “Urgent and Not Important” Tasks
“Urgent and Not Important” tasks are activities that require your attention now, but do not help you achieve your goals or fulfill your mission in life. Most “Urgent and Not Important” tasks are interruptions originating from other people and often involve helping them meet their own goals and fulfill their own priorities.
This is the “Delegate Me!” box.
Here are some specific examples of “Urgent and Not Important” activities:
- Most phone calls;
- Most text messages;
- Most emails, those that are not “Urgent and Important”;
- Co-worker who comes by your desk during your prime working time to ask a favor;
- Request from a former employee to write a letter of recommendation on his behalf;
- Your mom drops in unannounced and wants your help with a chore.
Many people spend most of their time on “Urgent and Not Important” tasks, while thinking they are working on “Urgent and Important” tasks.
While “Urgent and Important” tasks may be important to others, they are not important to you. They’re not necessarily bad, but they need to be balanced with your “Not Urgent but Important” activities. Otherwise, you will end up feeling like you are getting a lot done from day-to-day, while eventually realizing that you’re not actually making any progress in your own long-term goals. This is the perfect recipe for personal frustration and resentment towards others.
The solution to this problem is simple: Become more assertive and start to politely but firmly say “No!” to most requests.
Quadrant 4: “Not Urgent and Not Important” Tasks
“Not Urgent and Not Important” are these activities that, other than if they serve a specific professional or business purpose, unnecessary. These are the activities that are not helping you achieve or resolve anything. They are neither pressing nor do they help you achieve long-term goals or fulfill your mission in live. They are primarily, simply and utterly, mainly distractions.
This is the “Do Me later!”, the “Do Not Do It!” box.
Specific examples of such mostly useless tasks include:
- Watching TV;
- Mindlessly surfing the web;
- Playing video games;
- Scrolling through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram;
- Shopping sprees.
If we were to conduct a time audit on ourselves, most of us would find that we spend an inordinate amount of time on “Not Urgent and Not Important” activities.
As a pragmatist, I do not think you need to eliminate “Not Urgent and Not Important” activities altogether from your life. After a particularly hectic and busy day, randomly browsing the internet or watching a favorite TV show for a half hour is exactly what my brain needs to decompress.
Instead of aiming to completely rid yourself of “Not Urgent and Not Important” tasks, try to only 5% or less of your waking hours on them.
Be Like Ike; Spend More Time on Important Tasks
In our present shock world, the ability to filter the signal from the noise, or distinguish between what is urgent and what is truly important, is an essential skill to develop. When faced with a decision, stop and ask yourself, “Am I doing this because it is important or am I doing it because it is merely urgent?”
As you will spend most of your time working on “Not Urgent but Important tasks”, you will feel a renewed sense of calm, control, and composure in your life. You will feel like you are making real progress. By investing your time in “Not Urgent but Important” planning/organizing activities, you will prevent and eliminate many of the crises and problems of “Urgent and Important” tasks, balance the requests of “Urgent and Not Important” tasks with your own needs, and truly enjoy the veg-outs of “Not Urgent and Not Important” activities, knowing that you have earned the rest. By making “Not Urgent but Important” tasks your top priority, no matter the emergency, annoyance, or deadline you will be hit with, you will have the mental, emotional, and physical wherewithal to respond positively, rather than react defensively.
Transition & Reputation Management
- J. Michael Dennis is a former attorney, a Trial Scientist, a Crisis & Reputation Management Expert, a Public Affairs & Corporate Communications Specialist, a Warrior for Common Sense and Free Speech.
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