Putting the “Important but Not Urgent” Tasks Above the “Urgent but Not Important” Tasks

One of the biggest personal and professional frustrations that I have (and that a lot of others seem to share) is that there’s never enough time to get to the important things we want to do.

We want to do things like…
+ visit an old relative
+ create a master information document
+ work on a big project
+ make out a will
+ get involved in a community organization
+ get our masters degree in the evenings and weekends

Instead, we fill our time…
+ catching that can’t-miss show on television
+ surfing the web for some obscure piece of trivia
+ answering the phone and chatting with whoever answers
+ dealing with email
+ doing dishes
+ stopping at the grocery store for the third time this week

The first group of tasks are things that I would call “important but not urgent.” These are things that don’t have to be addressed immediately, but still have serious importance and value in our lives.

The second group of tasks are things that I would call “urgent but not important.” These are things that try to grab our attention and focus now but have no real impact on our long-term lives.

It’s easy to let our lives be run by the things that are “urgent but not important.” Most large bureaucracies function in this way. I know that my previous job certainly did at times. We often manage our lives this way – we’ll look around, ask ourselves what needs to be addressed right now, and then focus on dealing with that task just because it’s due today, even if it’s trivial compared to a much more important thing.

We’ll answer the phone several times in an hour even though it means constantly stepping away from a big project.
We’ll watch the big game tonight and call our elderly mother in a few days.
We’ll surf the web for trivia but let our dreams of a masters degree sit idle.

I do this myself, more often than I would like. Since I have two articles “due” on a given day for The Simple Dollar, it’s often easiest to focus wholly on the task that needs to be done today (those two articles) instead of stepping back and looking at the bigger picture of writing really long-lasting useful information. It’s easier to look around the house, see a big mess, and tackle it, even though my kids are quietly clamoring for more attention.

I find that four little things help me keep the “important but not urgent” in the forefront and let the “urgent but not important” things slide.

I’m unafraid to turn off my phone and email. Closing off channels through which the “urgent but not important” tasks can interrupt the “important but not urgent” tasks goes a long way towards maintaining my focus in the right areas. If it’s not important, it can wait. If it truly is important, I’ll know about it as soon as I’m available since I’ll check my messages.

I block off time for long-term projects. I spend part of every day focused on projects with a long-term payoff. For example, for much of July, August, September, and October, I focused heavily on the manuscript of my book. This didn’t help me at all in my day-to-day work, but it did build something with much greater long-term value. (Yes, I’m working on a long-term project now related to The Simple Dollar – no, I’m not ready to announce it.)

I sometimes will utterly drop the unimportant but urgent things if they’re getting in the way. Sometimes I’m overwhelmed with little requests. If I focused on nothing but those requests, I’d never get anything done. So, sometimes, I just have to drop those requests. I’ll put off responding to an email – or not even respond at all if there’s not an obvious answer needed. I’ll skip watching the “big game” and catch the highlights later. I’ll actively choose to put my communications devices away.

I’m acutely aware of what’s truly important to me – and what isn’t. One final trick is understanding what’s actually important to me – and how relatively important various things are. Quite often, it’s easy to substitute urgency for importance – but that often leaves you putting out fires and not really accomplishing anything. Sometimes, it’s best to ignore the fires and focus on the important things.

As I often say to my wife, “Don’t worry about it. I’d rather have dirty floors and well-adjusted children than a spotless house and sullen kids.”

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