Updated on 04.11.11

Separating the Urgent and the Important

Trent Hamm

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.

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  1. Stephan F- says:

    Almost all of those Urgent items are things that are interruptions that we react to and not things we have chosen to act on. I think that is the biggest difference.Too often we spend time reacting instead of acting. And I think that is where we most mess up our lives.
    Isn’t most office work about reacting to the urgent and not acting on the important. How many times have we hid out in an empty conference room or coming in early/staying late to get real work done. Isn’t it much the same?

  2. Tracy says:

    This is basically the important/urgent matrix (google) it, except that it’s simplified. Unfortunately, it’s not explained well in this post at all, which makes it not particularly useful. Important and urgent are NOT opposites, as Trent implies (and even acknowledges when he says that some things are both – but he forgets to realize some things are neither!)

    Everything basically has one of four (not two) options:


    In whose world is ‘finding the perfect pair of pants’ urgent? Nice, but not urgent – I would say that for most people, most of Trent’s ‘urgents’ … aren’t. His examples fall into the not-important/not-urgent category – and so yes, they should be just dismissed.

    The trick is to make sure quadrant A (Important/Urgent) gets your time and attention first – and gets taken care of. The other thing you’re supposed to try to do is find out which ones are likely to occur and find ways to be proactive (I mean, taxes are due every April – it may be urgent/important now, but if you start work in Jan/Feb on them, they’re still only important/not-urgent)

    You then basically figure out a way to split your time up between urgent/not-important and important/not-urgent that works. Try to minimize the time you spend on urgent/non-important by blocking out specific time, delegating, rescheduling, or, in some cases, multi-tasking. Block out specific times to focus on important/not-urgent items and make it a good amount.

    (And keep in mind that urgent/not important can turn into urgent/important if it’s *not* attended to)

  3. Mel says:

    @Tracy: I disagree that it’s not clearly explained. I think Trent has explained well what he was trying to – which is different from what you said. The unimportant/non-urgent things were ignored because in this case they’re irrelevant – they’re not jumping for your attention in the same way unimportant/urgent things are.

    As for the pants example (“trousers” for the Brits), it’s not so far-fetched. One example: I was running late for the bus to meet my boyfriend’s granny to go to a concert. I wanted to wear the “perfect” pants, but because we’d just moved everything was a mess and I couldn’t find them. Finding them was “urgent”, getting there on time was “important”. So I ended up wearing the not-so-perfect pants that I could find, and got there on time.

  4. I work in the 4 quadrant system, similar to what Tracy was mentioning. I focus on things in Quadrant 1 first (urgent/important), then mainly on Quadrant 2 (important, not urgent). Quadrant 3 usually has a due date (not important, urgent), and whenever I have free time I focus on Quadrant 4 (not urgent, not important) since it’s usually leisure activities that I want to do.

  5. Andrew says:

    Excuse me, but I must go–I have an urgent need to make my own laundry detergent.

  6. Tracy says:

    @Mel – See, I might buy that “unimportant/non-urgent things were ignored because in this case they’re irrelevant” but I honestly think Trent just remembered the concept from somewhere and got it wrong.

    Because he goes on to say:

    “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.”

    I just can’t imagine a world in which anybody classifies junk mail or telemarketers as urgent!

  7. kristine says:

    I also immediately recognized this as the 4-quadrants, the rocks and pebbles too…
    but it did not bother me- he is focusing on the larger sense having priorites straight, and not indulging distractions.

    However, I find this is written for home use, or for the self-employed. At work, the best strategy is always to make your boss’s priorities your own priorities, even if said boss flails in reactionary trivilaities most of the time, and wants you to service the minutia. Most supervisors only see their own priorities as important, and always urgent.

  8. Justin says:

    Great post!

    I think most people would agree that when we let the urgent get more attention than the important, we come to regret it.

    Answering the phone when you’re in a face to face conversation with someone you care about. Working on filing useless paperwork instead of going after new clients. Watching the “late breaking news” instead of spending time with your family.
    Eating tons of fast food instead of cooking something a bit healthier.

    All of these (and so much more) are examples of placing the urgent first, and in the long run they will hurt us more than help us!

  9. Julia says:

    I got that too, about the junk mail and telemarketers. I think he’s calling them urgent because they call for your attention NOW. Everytime the phone rings it’s saying “Pay attention to me NOW” no matter who is calling or why. Junk mail, however, is not a very good example – especially considering how often I pick up the mail and stick it in an inbox to be dealt with later. The only “urgent” thing there is to minimize the pieces of paper with my personal information that is just sitting in a mailbox where any motivated a-hole can get to it. If not for that I would often let my mail pile up for a couple weeks before collecting it.

  10. Nicole says:

    I also think this could be better, but the point is taken.

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