Separating the Urgent and the Important

Someone calling you on the phone is urgent, but is it important?

Giving your mom a long phone call is important, but is it urgent?

Finding that “perfect” pair of pants in your closet is urgent, but is it important?

Spending quality time with your daughter is important, but is it urgent?

If you really look at that list above and ask yourself which things genuinely matter in your life, you’ll quickly realize that the important things universally trump the urgent things. However, when we’re stuck in a key moment, we often give the urgent thing priority.

When we’re sitting at a candelit dinner with our partner, our cell phone buzzes and we check the (most likely unimportant) text just because it’s urgent.

When we’re already running late for our daughter’s dance recital, we’re still stuck in the closet looking for that perfect shirt to wear.

When we’re coming up with a debt repayment plan for our $300,000 in debt, we’re panicking and making angry phone calls about a $5 late fee.

When we’re trying to focus on a major project at work, we switch screens excitedly each time that email “ding” happens.

It’s easy to see how the urgent (and relatively unimportant) keeps us from hitting a home run on the important things in our lives. Here are five simple things I do to keep my eye on the important things.

I shut down distractions. When I have something I need to focus on, I turn off as many distractions as I can. My cell phone is off. My email program is off. Twitter is off. I’m focused on whatever that important thing at hand is.

When making my to-do list, I largely ignore urgency. If I have a vital project due in a week and an unimportant thing that needs to be done today, I’ll often just ignore the thing that needs to be done today. Seriously. I’ll take care of it when the actual important thing is done. If I nail the big thing, it won’t matter that I’m late on the little thing.

I fill in the cracks and let my brain “breathe” with the “urgent” stuff. Often, the “urgent” tasks don’t require a great deal of thought, so I’ll let my brain “breathe” and focus on other things. I’ll check my texts, check Twitter, check my phone messages, read my email, take care of housekeeping tasks, and so on – “urgent but not important” tasks.

If I’m panicked about something, I’ll ask myself if it really matters. For me, a sense of mild panic is usually a sure sign that I’m putting too much importance on the “urgent but not really important” thing at hand. This often happens when dealing with my children, when we’re having difficulty finding a child’s shoe or something along those lines. The important thing isn’t finding this specific shoe, it’s making sure that they’re ready for the day. Looking at things this way helps me to step back and reflect on what I’m doing.

I try to minimize the time I spend on “urgent but unimportant” tasks. I don’t mind hanging up on telemarketers. I chuck the junk mail as soon as I see it. I try to handle pieces of paper only once.

What about things that are important and urgent, such as taxes for people who haven’t filed yet? When I focus on the important things, I do take into consideration when they’re due. The key isn’t to just worry about due dates on everything, but to worry about whether the due date really matters at all.

For example, many people hear a phone ring, give that phone ringing an “immediate” due date, and then reprioritize by due date. They pick up the phone.

For me, if I hear the phone ring, I’ll only answer it if I’m not working on anything important at the moment. If I am, then the ringing phone has a lower priority and I ignore it. I know my voice mail will pick it up. On some occasions, I’ll screen calls, only answering incoming ones from my children’s preschool, for example.

Another example: I’ve spent a bunch of time coming up with a budget and a debt repayment plan. Everything’s going well, but suddenly a friend wants me to go shopping, then encourages me to spend a bunch of money to take advantage of a “sale” on items I don’t really need. The sale ends in a few days. It’s urgent, but is it important?

I’ve found that every time I’ve let urgency trump importance, I’ve regretted it. The urgency of an immediate want trumping the importance of a savings plan results in regret. The urgency of changing clothes and thus missing my son’s first soccer goal is a regret. An unimportant phone call interrupting my train of thought is a regret.

Learning to separate urgency from importance is one of the best skills you can learn for financial, personal, and professional success.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.