How to Distinguish Urgent vs. Important

Whether at work, home or play; the ability to distinguish between what is important or urgent can be the difference between success or stress. “What is urgent is never important. What are important are never urgent”. This quote by former American President Eisenhower in 1954 may seem like a strange thing to say however, when you break it down, it actually makes sense.

When you recognise the two are not actually the same, your ability to function and improve your effectiveness in life becomes easier – and less stressful.

Every day you become swamped by calls, emails, messages, family events – the list goes on – which claim to be important. Most are often not. You have deadlines and timeframes screaming at you for attention. You have been told those tasks are urgent and you hurriedly slave away to complete them. Often at the detriment of your own much more urgent tasks and – ultimately your wellbeing.

Humans have been pre-programmed over the centuries to react to the sound of urgent and think short term. When someone screams `urgent’ you automatically think it is important and prioritise it over something that actually is important.

While ticking off seemingly unimportant tasks may feel like an achievement, it is actually counter productive. For example, if you spend all of your time cleaning out your email mailbox, it means you are not able to do things that will actually achieve your goals. Which means you are literally wasting your valuable time.

Remember, you only have set hours each day – 24 to be exact. There is no negotiating for for more hours because everyone only gets 24. How you manage those 24 hours is your key to a successful, healthy life.

Remember that exclusive `busy club’ in the eighties and nineties? The one where everyone seemed to rush around like crazy. Did they ever complete those tasks or just keep carrying them forward? Were those people productive? Probably not. Did they add extra stress to their lives and eventually burn out? Probably yes.

The `busy club’ is really not one you want to a part of. You end up promising what you cannot deliver. You become unreliable where no-one asks you to do anything again. You become unproductive and known for not being able to manage your workload or time. As a result, your health, mentally and physically, decreases to the point you can no longer function.

By distinguishing between urgent and important you can save yourself a lot of time and pressure.

So how do you distinguish between urgent and important?

You may remember the book by author Stephen Cavey in 1980. The `7 Habits of Highly Effective People’ uses a time management system to help you understand the difference between urgent and important.

The system was created to help you organise your tasks so you can spend your valuable time on things that are actually important. Important you, that is. The system begins by analysing your tasks for the day or week, then putting them into four categories. Assess each task and the genuine level of urgency as you work through your to do list.

📝 Category One: Important and Urgent. These tasks require immediate action or are a crisis situation. They require little time for thought and need you to act quickly. These items have a due date such as lodging your tax return or paying a bill. This category should only have one or two items, any more and you need to reassess your priorities.

📝 Category Two: Important but Not Urgent. These are tasks which help to achieve your own goals whether at work or home but do not require immediate action. Your focus should be here as it allows you to respond rather than react. For example, a task in this category may include developing positive relationships for projects which support your core values.

📝 Category Three: Not Important but Urgent. These are the interruptions which stop you being productive. You know, the people who suddenly come up to your desk flustered with a `now’ task. Or the friend who has a`crisis’ decision choosing outfits. Often these tasks get confused as category one tasks because they are items which satisfy someone else’s goals – not yours. When you drop everything to please others it leaves you feeling drained with no energy to focus on your own goals.

📝 Category Four: Not Important or Urgent. These are the tasks we call time wasters. These include social media and television which, unless your goal is social media marketing, are taking your time away from tasks more valuable to your goals. While sitting in front of the television can be relaxing after a stressful day, you should do it mindfully with full attention and awareness.

Once you have allocated all your tasks and responsibilities to a category, take a look at category one. This is where your attention should be focused as they have the most impact on your life if not completed. Once category one is completed, move on to category two.

As you can see category three is the least important. The world will not fall over if those tasks are not completed on time. To be more effective, leave category three and four alone altogether because, regardless of being urgent or not, they really are not important.

Each day or week spend ten minutes to half an hour critically assessing your tasks and activities and putting them into one of the four above mentioned categories. Over time, this will become second nature and you will free up so much time by distinguishing the difference between urgent and important. Not only will you become more effective, but you will have more energy and time to focus on what really matters.

Leave a Reply