Updated on 11.30.09

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

Trent Hamm

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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  1. Beth says:

    One of the biggest things that has helped me overcome the little ‘gotta do this’ stuff like dishes, cleaning, etc. is we have a 15-minute a day rule. After dinner, we frantically clean for 15 minutes while listening to some music (right now, obviously, we’ve switched over to Christmas music). On the weekends, I may take an hour to do the more gritty stuff (stove, fridge). It works great. It makes me feel like when our 15 minutes are over, then its us time. I don’t feel bogged down by thinking of all the things that I “have” to get done before bed.

  2. karyn says:

    I try to focus on only certain tasks for each day. Monday is for washing sheets and cleaning the bedrooms, Tuesday is for cleaning bathrooms, etc. For the most part, tasks have to wait for their “assigned” days. I work online but on my off days, I refuse to turn on the computer because I get sucked into emails and “research”. I like Beth’s idea of a 15 minute “rush and clean”.

  3. In terms of turning off your email. One thing I’ve been doing the past week is using LeechBlock so I only have access to email between 4pm and 8pm each night.

    I’ll be lessening the amount of time I have in the inbox over the next few weeks and months, but so far it’s been an enormous help in getting the important stuff done.

  4. Bill says:

    I think #1 Beth’s power cleaning is a great idea and I’m going give it a try. We are a 4 person family so it will be like a full hour of cleaning is getting done.

  5. Jules says:

    Hehe, my biggest problem is overcoming the inertia to start something big. I’ve got 3 novel-length ideas that want filling out and several short-stories that want editing, but I just haven’t made a plan for the work yet.

  6. tarits says:

    bull’s eye, trent! i’m working now as an assistant for a freelance trainer, as well taking up my masters and being involved in several faith based ministries. i also live alone, so all the household chores won’t get done unless i do them.
    juggling all these commitments are fun but tiring. i’ve made it a goal to follow the “big rocks” idea for time manegement (i think u wrote about this a while back): major in the majors and let the little things slide when i have to. i’ve also made a schedule which i TRY to stick to.
    about you dream to take up masters: GO FOR IT!

  7. Ken says:

    Good post! We have to be careful to not let the ‘unimportant’ dominate our lives. We need to spend time doing things that get results every day. It’s about managing time efficiently. I think TV is overrated yet I still watch 2-3 hours a weekend.

  8. Heather says:

    Hehe, great post Trent. And particularly timely since I sat down at the computer this morning to get some much-needed work done on my masters thesis, and instead find myself poking about on the web. Obviously its a subject I still struggle with daily :)

  9. This one is tricky for me. I like to make long lists and then start marking things off, so I tend to do the easy things first. I know that this pretty much goes against all GTD methodologies. It’s just something that I need to work on.

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