“What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important” – Dwight D. Eisenhower.
‘To do’ lists can be quite effective when it comes to ‘getting things done’, but they don’t have to be written down. Simply mentally running through the various demands on your time before diving blindly in will help you to manage your resources.
Supposing you had three things to do: buy a birthday card, walk the dog and rescue a young woman, tied to the rails of a nearby railway. It would be unwise not to deal with the latter before wiping off the other two – not only because the hostage might fall victim to a passing train, but because – after a long and tiring walk – you might not be in such a fit state to carry out the brave rescue. That’s a perfectly reasonable reaction; the rescue is fairly important and extremely urgent.
The (Illusory) Importance of being Urgent
Unfortunately (as I hardly need to tell you), that sort of thing rarely comes up. The conflict is, more frequently, between importance and urgency. At first glance, the two words have almost the same meaning: something might be important because it is urgent or vice versa. Of course, they do differ. Take ‘important’ to mean relevant to a long-term and profitable goal, while ‘urgent’ things are mere interruptions to the greater scheme of things.
As urgent as they might seem, most of these ‘interruptions’ are just that. By allowing yourself to be sidetracked and put off by passing ‘critical’ jobs, you mess up the aims you’ve set yourself and will become disillusioned at your progress. Importance should have a greater bearing on what you do and when you do it than the comparative urgency of your options.
Time Management Matrix
This importance and urgency stuff is two-dimensional though – just as some tasks are important but not especially urgent, others are important and extremely urgent (or unimportant and not urgent). Here, it is simpler still: important jobs that are also quite urgent should be completed before those that are just urgent, or just quite important. If you follow…
This is where discretion kicks in, but – as usual – you shouldn’t allow a newly arisen task (however important it might be) to jump the queue: wait until you’ve finished your current ‘subtask’ before you start on the emergency one. Equally, be ready to save work that is neither pressing nor particularly relevant for a time when you haven’t much else to do.
Urgent or Important: Which to Choose?
As much as possible, it would probably do you some good to avoid completely those ASAP but extraneous jobs. This isn’t as difficult as it might sound – the fact that you have other, more important things to do is a fairly good excuse (that’s to say: reason) in itself. As I’ve probably declaimed at length above, the common characteristic of many ‘urgent’ tasks is that they’re really not all that essential.
So, to recap: long-term importance is far more significant than the (inherently short-term) urgency; tasks with ASAP in the margin are sometimes best avoided, and should rarely be allowed to displace ‘important’ jobs.