Urgent vs Important (#42)

One of the most important productivity concepts that goal-oriented individuals understand is the difference between those things that are urgent and those things that are important. They know that they are often mutually exclusive.

A powerful priority-setting tool made famous by author Steven Covey is called Eisenhower’s Urgent/Important Principle.  As its name suggests, this is a tool used by President Dwight Eisenhower to identify tasks and activities that demanded his attention and those that he should either ignore or designate as a lesser priority.

According to this principle, our tasks will typically fall into one of four quadrants; we also tend to complete them in this order:

  1. Urgent & Important
  2. Urgent & Not Important
  3. Important & Not Urgent
  4. Not Urgent & Not Important

A common productivity mistake is not focusing energy on “Important and Not Urgent” before “Urgent and Not Important”. The problem with this approach is that, if you keep ignoring the important things you want to accomplish long-term, you set yourself up to be reactive when those things eventually become both urgent and important; this is “firefighting” mode.

Prioritizing things that are “Urgent and Not Important” also distracts you from taking action towards what is most important. In essence, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. While it can feel good to cross seemingly urgent items off your list, they don’t really move the needle in your personal or professional life.

A year ago, I began organizing my to-do list into the following buckets and recommended order:

I have also talked to many others who have done the same and have experienced great results. When I follow this to-do list process, I find that I am able to meet my goals with fewer things sneaking up on me.

The notion I want to leave you with is, if we live our lives in a reactionary way, we will never accomplish the bigger goals we set for ourselves. Whether you choose to use Eisenhower’s Urgent/Important tool or some other productivity tool, the key is to avoid the urgent distractions and stay focused on what you want to achieve in the long-term. If you do, you’ll find yourself accomplishing so much more you thought possible.

Quote of the Week

“What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.”

President Dwight Eisenhower

Have a great weekend!

Image Source: JP Kantor Consulting

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  1. Robert LaBonne Jr October 21, 2016 at 11:25 am

    Great one Bob, because it’s so simple and to the point and backed up by a great leader with a proven track record. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Scott Gilefsky October 21, 2016 at 11:37 am

    Being in the service industry, I have often thought of the content in this Friday Forward, however the insights in the article really helped to crystallize my thoughts. I am in the tax practice at a Big 4 accounting firm. As a result, I am presented with various deadlines (some governed by law, some internally imposed, some imposed by others at our firm, and some imposed by the client). Balancing these deadlines with proactively looking for client opportunities is a continual challenge and often requires a reassessment of what is important and what is urget.

    1. fridaymaster October 21, 2016 at 11:43 am

      Thanks Scott, great insights!

  3. Henry Mittelman October 21, 2016 at 12:50 pm

    Bob, this is a wonderful reminder. Having worked with thousands of business leaders over the years, I can honestly say that embracing this self-management concept is what transforms good CEOs and Executives into great ones. Once they “embrace” this concept, they are able to push this concept down to their direct reports, and then down into middle management. The entire organization becomes more effective. Let’s face it, all senior business leaders have a full plate. Lot’s of activities need to be accomplished over the course of a day, week, and month for a business to succeed. Since we are all limited by time, the key is to spend that time “first” on the highest value activities (the Urgent)…the ones that will have the greatest impact on moving the business forward….the Urgent! While the concept is simple, the execution is not easy. Therein lies the challenge!

    1. Kevin October 15, 2018 at 2:38 pm

      “the highest value activities…”

      Actually, the highest value activities are the “important” ones. Importance is a measure of impact, urgency is a measure of time sensitivity.

      So if you meant to say “the highest value activities (the Important)” then I agree with you.

  4. Jeff Maldavir October 21, 2016 at 12:51 pm

    Thanks Bob – I’ve been receiving your Friday Forward’s for a few weeks now and find that it is often the first thing I read on Friday morning. Short, but packed with great insights. I particularly liked this one – I’ve just started managing my priorities in this same manner and it has had a huge impact on ensuring progress in the most effective prioritized order. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Jennifer Montana October 21, 2016 at 1:00 pm

    Ironically, I have been reading the last few week’s of wonderful, thoughtful insights, wanting to engage, because they speak to my values and beliefs in a core way. However, I could not do so, because, I feared I may subsequently slip into the urgent but unimportant “box,” as I refer to it. I have had that Covey card since graduate school and am positive I got through, because i tried like anything ‘to always start with the end in mind.’ (disassociated it from Eisenhower–thank you for the reminder!).

    Being in reactive mode rather than proactive mode can become a way of life for some but is distinct from implementing a difficult but worthy vision that requires a lot of management with respect to achieving goals and objectives. Agility, leadership and persistence with the “end in mind” are key to managing towards these objectives, but it also seems that reevaluation is a must to ensure that too much resistance to implementation does not signify an issue with the objectives from my perspective–this can be a difficult assessment.

    I personally struggle with trying to maneuver out of the urgent/unimportant box in my personal life as a single mother while simultaneously scaling a venture in its fourth year where we are poised for success and our new “problems” are indicative that we ready to pull the trigger at the next level. This level of risk taking makes me clutch my wallet-sized Covey Card. However, you remind me that I need to photocopy the card, start with it at our next staff meeting in order to share it for its obvious value, and make it easier for my colleagues to understand the look on my face when they ask me questions that they can easily answer for themselves–its the look of don’t pull me into that lower right-hand quadrant, please!!

    Thank you for all the insights and reminders. It is true that a little inspiration can go a long way. It removes the meta dialogue, which include doubt and fear, in my mind.

    Truly grateful. Thank you!

  6. Conor Neill October 21, 2016 at 3:02 pm

    Another great Friday bite of inspiration!
    It prompted me to write a post: https://conorneill.com/2016/10/21/the-urgent-and-the-important/
    In order to move out of what is urgent towards what is important, there is a skill we must develop. If you don’t develop this skill, you cannot build the discipline of important over urgent.
    Keep up the great writing 😉

  7. Robert A. Fox October 22, 2016 at 4:52 pm

    Bobby, I taught time management as part of my college stress management course. I covered the four quadrants and, in class discussion, had students place their activities in each quadrant (ie. health and relationships in Quadrant II as important and not urgent and so forth). I then took out a large bell jar and filled it with rocks about the size of coffee cups. I then filled in the spaces with gravel. Next I filled it in with sand and finally poured in water.
    Baffled, the students just sat there wondering what this was all about.
    After a long minute I asked them to tell me what each material best corresponded to the quadrants we discussed. Over a period of twenty years doing the demonstration, no class got it quite right. Quadrant 4 was water, 3 was sand, 1 was pebbles and 2 was rocks. I asked them why and kept questioning them until they figured out that if one were to put their rocks in first (ie. health, relationships, studying for exams), there would be room for each other quadrant, but if any of the other quadrants came ahead of rocks, the jar fills and there is no room for the important but not urgent things in life that really matter. I always timed the class so I could uncover a huge sign at the top of the “blackboard” in the front of the class that said:
    The secret of a happy and successful life:

    Obviously I love your “stuff.”
    Bob Fox

  8. Kevin October 24, 2016 at 3:51 pm

    I am a physician and am putting out constant urgent if you will issues. A lot of these issues are urgent and important. I have subdivided even more which may or may not be helpful. Any clinical issues take priority. Beyond that I now use the categorization you have described. I find that the majority of the non urgent and not important never need my attention – Others are merely pinging because you have nicely answered questions in a timely fashion in the past – the answers for which could have been obtained elsewhere with little effort. I admit with text and email making it so easy to reach out, I do this as well.
    Using these categories has helped separate these out.

  9. Leah Schwartz October 25, 2016 at 5:06 pm

    I learned this strategy in a job right out of college and I think about it often. As a self-identified procrastinator and someone who has always struggled with time management, I use this way of thinking as a self-check. When my to-do list becomes unwieldy and I can’t turn off my brain because I feel overwhelmed, I ask myself, what am I doing wrong? I usually find that I’m spending too much time on the “wrong” things. While those tasks or activities may be briefly satisfying, they are preventing me from putting my time and energy into the things that really matter. This helps me refocus and puts me back in the driver’s seat.

    Another good one for those of you who overthink and sometimes get lost in trivial details–“Perfect is the enemy of good,” Voltaire. Helps me think big picture and keep my eye on the prize.

  10. Greg Hintz October 28, 2016 at 4:42 am

    I loved this edition of your weekly email – I use almost exactly the same method for my todo list as well. Thanks for taking the time and energy to put these together, can’t wait to see what tomorrow’s post brings!

  11. DAVID ROTHWELL April 7, 2017 at 8:26 am

    As Stephen Covey said: “Be proactive” 🙂

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