Urgent vs Important: How To Fix Your Priorities
Scott D. Clary | Mental Models, Performance, Business & Entrepreneurship
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Urgent vs Important: How To Fix Your Priorities
Thanks to a study called 'The Mere Urgency Effect', we finally have evidence behind a bad habit most of us are guilty of: prioritizing urgent tasks over important ones. We're more likely to focus on time-sensitive tasks even if they're not as value-driving as other tasks.
Are you confused by the two adjectives I just compared? 'Urgent' and 'important' mean the same thing – don't they?
If you spend your days putting out fires and never feeling fulfilled by the tasks you get done, you're likely prioritizing urgent tasks – aka, those with deadlines – over important tasks that deliver more value in the long run.
Enter the Eisenhower Matrix, an easy-to-understand and highly effective way of organizing tasks so that you can focus on what really matters in life. Let's take a closer look.
Urgent and Important Are Not the Same
Urgent tasks have a funny way of feeling much more important than they actually are. Whether it's the deadline associated with them, the pressure from a colleague to get it done, or simply their sense of immediacy, urgent tasks can seem like they're the be-all and end-all.
They take so much of our attention, in fact, that we forget about the important tasks – things that help us reach our long-term goals; things that have a higher payout than smaller urgent tasks.
Are You Prioritizing Low-Value Tasks?
I'm going to pose a scenario to you. See if you can relate:
It's 8 am on Monday morning. This week, your goal is to upgrade the onboarding pipeline for new users. Making it smoother and more intuitive will bring a lot more clients on board and increase your company's profits substantially.
You plan on spending the first two hours of each day working toward this goal.
Upon opening your laptop, however, you're immediately bombarded with emails requesting small changes to existing web pages. You can clearly see that the updates will make a difference, but they won't move the needle on your onboarding project.
But... they're urgent. And your colleagues clearly need them done ASAP.
By the time you're finished implementing these small changes, your two hours are up, and you need to move on to your other daily responsibilities. You haven't had a chance to work on the onboarding project.
What often happens in this situation is we're so driven by the need to meet deadlines (official or self-imposed) that we skip the process of assessing which task is more valuable.
Believe it or not, someone in history who deeply understood this fallacy – and worked to resolve it in his own life – was the 34th US president, Dwight D. Eisenhower.
"Especially whenever our affairs seem to be in crisis, we are almost compelled to give our first attention to the urgent present rather than to the important future."
Eisenhower believed that urgent tasks aren't always important and that important tasks aren't always urgent. And – thanks to Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People – we can now understand exactly what he meant.
The Eisenhower Matrix
Covey created the Eisenhower Matrix to help the everyday hero prioritize tasks and projects. I personally live by this approach because, like many of you, my life as an entrepreneur is filled to the brim with 'urgent' tasks.
The Matrix is simple; it sorts your tasks into one of four squares, all of which correspond to a different plan of attack. Visualize it as a two-by-two grid with 'urgent' and 'not urgent' on the x-axis and 'important' and 'not important' on the y-axis.
Here's a breakdown of each square.
1. Urgent and Important
Here, the time-sensitive and the high-value tasks collide. These are the tasks that need to be handled immediately. They'll require your full attention and should be taken care of as soon as possible.
For example, I'd consider these to be both urgent and important:
- An emergency meeting with a large client who is considering leaving your business. It's urgent because they're just moments away from walking out the door, and it's important because a successful negotiation could mean maintained profits in the long run.
- A website bug fix that is driving away customers. You are literally losing money with each passing minute – so of course, you must fix this issue as soon as possible.
- Offboarding a disgruntled client. While there isn't an immediate financial consequence, it's still important to handle this quickly before any further damage is done. You can't predict how this client will react to the termination of their contract or whether they will attempt to sabotage your business in some way.
To accurately determine which tasks are 'urgent and important', this needs to be a very intentional planning process – or your brain will default prioritizing all tasks based on urgency alone.
2. Urgent, but Not Important
These are tasks that require your attention but do not have a significant impact on the bottom line. You can safely delegate these to other team members (and you should, as soon as possible).
I'm referring to tasks like:
- Submitting projects to clients. You're abiding by a pre-determined deadline, but it's a low-skill task that does not require your personal attention. Get someone else to take care of submissions.
- Proofreading this week's company e-newsletter. Even if you're committed to sending these out on the same day every week, you don't personally need to take care of the proofreading. That's what editors are for.
- Answering customer inquiries that don't relate to urgent orders or complaints. These can be handled by your support team without any additional involvement from you.
Delegation is one of the most powerful skills you can master. (I'll cover that in a later newsletter, don't worry!)
3. Not Urgent, but Important
Here, things get interesting. These are the tasks that can easily be pushed to the bottom of your priorities list because they don't appear urgent – but they should never be ignored.
These are the tasks that will have a long-term or preventative impact on your business:
- Developing new marketing strategies for acquiring customers in competitive markets. This requires research and brainstorming, and it will take some time. But it's important to stay ahead of the competition and acquire customers in a way that is both cost-effective and long-lasting.
- Conducting team training sessions. L&D may not seem urgent, but high morale is essential for any business – and you can't expect your team members to be well-versed in their roles without proper training sessions.
- Gathering feedback from customers. Feedback is the best way to ensure that your products and services are meeting their needs. And, it's important for understanding what you can do better in the future.
So that you don't forget about these tasks or push them down your list for too long, they need to be scheduled. Set up a recurring task in your calendar to work on these 'not urgent, but important' tasks.
4. Not Urgent, and Not Important
Finally, let's talk about the delete pile. (Trust me – you don't need to think twice about these.)
If you've got tasks on your list that are unimportant and not at all timebound, they're quite simply a waste of your time. A few examples include:
- Going down the LinkedIn rabbit hole. You might disguise this as 'competitor research', but let's be honest – all it does is dampen your confidence and make you compare your progress to other comparable startups.
- Attending events that have no purpose. Networking is an excellent thing to do. If you're simply attending something for a good social media post, however, it's a waste of your time.
- Updating company job listings. Are you happy with your current team? Have new applicants been flowing in? If so, doing things like updating job descriptions is not progress; it's procrastination.
Some of these tasks can be eliminated altogether, while others can be safely forgotten about until a later date.
Build an Eisenhower Habit
As the study I mentioned earlier confirmed, we humans are impulsive with our prioritization. We're going to default to the tasks that feel most urgent.
That is, unless we intentionally build a habit of using the Eisenhower Matrix.
Carve out a few minutes each morning to review your task list and categorize each one according to the matrix. You'll be surprised at how quickly you'll start to see a difference in the way you prioritize your tasks – and, as a result, get more done.
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