Updated on 11.29.11

Putting Off the Important Things

Trent Hamm

One of the biggest challenges when it comes to personal finance is that most of the personal finance tasks a person might do are not urgent. It’s that lack of urgency that often convinces people to indulge in bad personal finance behavior.

Important and Urgent Tasks
What do I mean by not “urgent”? Every task you have before you in your life can be judged by one of two traits. Is it important? Is it urgent? I use these two questions as a constant guide to the things I need to do in my life, as I’ve mentioned before on The Simple Dollar.

For example, getting my children ready for school is both “important” and “urgent,” so it takes top priority at the start of the day. On the other hand, playing a computer game is neither “important” or “urgent,” so it tends to be pretty low on the queue.

The tricky ones are the other two areas. On the one hand, there are tasks that are “urgent” but not “important.” Things like answering the phone tend to fall into this area. Most of the phone calls I receive really aren’t important, but the ringing of the phone makes it urgent.

On the other hand, there are tasks that are “important” but not “urgent.” A lot of personal finance tasks, such as signing up for your 401(k) or starting a savings plan, fall into this category.

“Important but not urgent” tasks are more important to your life than the “urgent but not important” tasks, but the “urgent” ones often get the attention. They’re the squeaky wheels, and the squeaky wheels usually get the grease.

Even worse, we’ll often put aside “important but not urgent” tasks for “neither urgent nor important” tasks. Instead of working on those papers for the 401(k), we’ll go watch The Walking Dead or play a computer game. I’m guilty of this myself, often retreating into a page-turning novel instead of doing something I need to do.

Overcoming These Traps
I use several different techniques to keep myself from falling into these traps.

First, when I settle in for work, I eliminate paths in which “urgent but not important” tasks can interrupt me. Off goes Twitter. Off goes email. Off goes my phone. Off goes Skype. I do not allow these tasks to even have the chance to interrupt me.

Next, I keep a constant “to-do” list of “important but not urgent” things I need to get done. This list is usually fairly long. If the items on it are too big, I break those bigger things down into smaller pieces, record the “big” item elsewhere (I actually use Microsoft OneNote for my bigger projects), and only include the next step on my “to-do” list.

Whenever I have free time, I make sure to always look at that list first and try to find something I want to do. By looking at that list first, I find it much harder to get sucked into something that’s idle fun.

I also minimize the “path of least resistance” to important but not urgent tasks. When I’m consciously thinking about it, I’ll do some of the “prep work” for these things. I’ll get out the paperwork I need. I’ll print out the needed documents and put them in an easy-to-find spot. I’ll use a few minutes of downtime to do a bit of preparatory research.

This way, when I actually get around to that “important but not urgent” tasks, little preparatory things are already out of the way.

A final tactic I use is to set aside time specifically for these tasks – as well as time each week to review things. I try to set aside an hour each day just for these “important but not urgent” tasks, like filing things away, filling out paperwork, filing quarterly taxes, and so forth. In addition, once a week I spend some time reviewing my goals, the tasks I haven’t completed, and so on. This helps me get my plans in place for the following week.

If I nip procrastination in the bud, I don’t fall behind on the “important but not urgent” things that are so key to my future.

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  1. krantcents says:

    I usually start with a list and prioritize it. I enjoy a good feeling of accomplishment everytime O cross something off.

  2. Jennifer says:

    Sounds like a mix of GTD with the 7 Habits. I’ve just started working with a flavour of GTD too. The key is really setting aside the time each week to review, otherwise tasks just start piling up again. And that’s the part I’ve got to work on right now, figuring out where in the week the review part should go.

  3. Jackowick says:

    You can read and read and read, but you have to follow through on whatever system you want to use.

    I can name a number of friends/coworkers who have aall kinds of name brand/catch phrase books on working and living smarter, but when it comes down to the crisis situations and decisions, more often than not, they fail because they don’t stick to it.

    I like to ask people “when does this have to be done” and if they say ASAP, I ask them 5 minutes, 5 o’clock or five days… that usually resets the priority or shuts them up haha…

  4. prodgod says:

    @Jackowick: LOVE the 5-5-5 suggestion. I’m going to start using it.

  5. valleycat1 says:

    I quit a long time ago considering a ringing phone urgent if it isn’t my office telephone.

    And as I’ve commented before, you don’t have to spend every moment of your life being productive. Idle down time is just as important (& sometimes urgent) as doing paperwork or making progress on personal projects.

  6. Jules says:

    Luxury is having a job where you can make those kinds of priorities. Everything I do at work is important. It’s merely a question of when it needs to be done by.

  7. brett says:

    Good Stuff. I also use the Brian Tracy “Important-Urgent” strategy (to varying levels of success).

    I think that personal time management is something we desperately need to teach our children.

  8. Meghan says:

    It seems as if you should have credited “The seven habits of highly effective people” since this is all taken from that book.

  9. Sylvia says:

    In the spirit of giving credit to the originator — this urgent/not urgent and important/not important way of framing things comes from Stephen Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. He noted (as you do) that many people tend to prioritize things that seem urgent even when they’re not important, and to neglect things that are important but don’t seem urgent. It’s an excellent book, for those who don’t know it.

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