Urgency and Importance
or How to Organize Your Work and Life.
There are a lot of tasks that get done in a typical day. If you’re anything like me, you’ve got a never-ending list of tasks and chores that should get done. How do you decide what has to happen first and what has to wait?
I can’t remember where I first heard about the distinction between urgent and important. It seems like it is possibly one of the most significant tools for social entrepreneurs and nonprofit organizers. It is also known as the Eisenhower principle.
The Eisenhower principle is used to decide whether a given task is important, urgent, both or neither, and then to prioritize your time toward the important tasks.
The basic idea is that each task should be described as either important or not important, and urgent or not urgent.
Urgent tasks are things that must be done relatively quickly, have an upcoming deadline, or that have to be finished so that others can do their work. Important tasks on the other hand, are tasks that further your goals or the goals of your organization. To be able to know what is important, you have to know what your goals and objectives are.
There are some things that are inherently both important and urgent. If you hear the fire alarm go off, you can assume that it is important and urgent. If you hear that a family member is suddenly and unexpectedly in the hospital, it could certainly be described as both urgent and important.
Emergencies aside, there are many things that could be described as both urgent and important. Preparing for a media interview, publishing a report on a deadline, and submitting tax documents are important and tend to be urgent through either procrastination or coming up unexpectedly.
As you spend more time in your organization, you should be better able to predict when things like media interview requests are likely to come in, and when the typical reporting deadlines are. Most of the rest of the tasks that are both important and urgent can be avoided if you don’t let yourself procrastinate.
This brings us to the important but not urgent tasks. Many of these tasks are where the real significance of your work will be. Without a plan, these are the tasks that are typically left behind in the rush to finish all of the urgent tasks.
Things like professional development, building relationships with your team, and finishing that new program or product will often sit neglected in this category if your time is always being pulled by the urgent. Some of these tasks will sit in the important but not urgent category forever because they don’t have deadlines.
There will always be some tasks that are both important and urgent, but try to keep them few and far between. By planning more deliberately and prioritizing well, you can finish most important tasks before they become urgent.
Now we come to the urgent but not important tasks. Many times, these are because someone else asks you to do something. Often, these do not contribute to you completing your goals or objectives, but are necessary to keep the organization functioning.
If you are hoping to focus most of your time on the important tasks of your work, then you will need to decide which of these urgent but not important tasks are worth your time. Sometimes these tasks can be delegated, but other times, you will have to let some fires burn as you work on the pieces that fulfill the organization’s objectives.
Finally, we come to the tasks that are not urgent and not important. These are usually time wasters and not worth your time. These kinds of tasks are not what you want to be intentionally scheduling into your day. However, having a few of these tasks to use as breaks between other work can be a great way to refresh yourself between important tasks.
How to move away from urgency
When you first start to try to separate out which of your tasks are most important, you will have to take some extra time to make sure you are still finishing everything that people expect of you (and what you have agreed to do.) The urgency of present tasks is not easily removed. That is understandable and expected.
If you truly want to move away from only completing what is urgent, then setting boundaries from this moment on should be a high priority.
By allowing yourself to say no to some incoming urgent but not important tasks, you will give yourself the time to finish some urgent important tasks early. As you finish off some urgent and important tasks, you will start to free up some space to work on those important tasks that are not urgent.
Over time, you will be able to finish off urgent tasks faster than they appear, and begin shifting the mindset of those you work with to focus more on the important aspects of your work.
As you go through this, do keep in mind that for some people to finish their important tasks, they might need your help. This can seem like they are pushing urgent tasks to you. One way to work with this would be to start using the language of important tasks with the people you work with.
With everyone on the same page, it will be easier for everyone on your team to work towards the overall goals, rather than putting your time into the urgent tasks.
You can also use the concept of important tasks to organize your day. Each day, before I finish working, I write the most important task that must be completed the next day at the top of the whiteboard. I then write the next two most important tasks below the most important task. Below the top 3 tasks, I keep a list of all the other tasks that eventually need to be completed, separated by important and not important.
This practice helps me keep focused on the important aspects of what I am working on, and prevents me from jumping from urgent task to urgent task.
How will you keep yourself focused on your important tasks?
Just remember: keep it simple.