Urgent versus Important: Where Should You Focus?

Much time is wasted by our inability to focus our attention and effort on what is truly important. Whether due to distractions (email alerts, shiny objects, interruptions), difficulty prioritizing or basing decisions on how we feel (physically and emotionally), it’s easy to lose sight of where our efforts are most needed. This leads to procrastination for some, while others feel like they’re constantly working just to keep their head above water, always in crisis mode.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.” It can be easy to confuse importance with urgency. Merriam-Webster defines important as “marked by or indicative of significant worth or consequence: valuable in content or relationship.” Urgent, on the other hand, is defined as “calling for immediate attention: pressing.”

When looking at the list of tasks that are in front of us, or pop up throughout the day, it is imperative to be able to accurately assess their importance.

A helpful technique is to use an organizational device like the Eisenhower Decision Matrix to categorize tasks by importance and urgency. This can help to separate out the various factors that make certain tasks seem like they should be prioritized, when in fact they can wait. In essence; prioritize what is important and not what is urgent.

The Eisenhower Matrix says: (1) First, do important tasks that need to be done the same day. (2) Schedule important but not so urgent tasks. (3) Delegate what’s urgent but less important. (4) What’s neither urgent or important, don’t do at all.

Time Management Strategies to Help You Prioritize Urgent versus Important Tasks

But what do you do when everything seems important and urgent? If this rings true for you, consider these tactics.

1. You’re categorizing tasks incorrectly due to feeling like you can’t delegate (“If you want it done right, you have to do it yourself.”) Practice delegating less essential tasks and follow up with those you have delegated to.

2. You’re distracted throughout the day and focus on whatever task is currently attracting your attention. Categorize your tasks using the Eisenhower Decision Matrix at the beginning of the day and have it within sight as a visual reminder to reorient your focus throughout the day.

3. The squeaky wheels are getting the grease. Recognize the difference between an emotional reaction and the objective importance of an event. A client’s strong emotional reaction (anxiety, anger, panic) does not make an issue important. Recognize and separate the emotional reaction so that you can objectively evaluate the importance of the matter at hand.

4. You really do have a very long list of tasks that are both important and urgent.You either need more resources (technology, personnel, procedures) or you need better boundaries (practice saying “no” because you are taking on too much).

5. You aren’t making progress on your “Important/Urgent” list so it always seems full. Take some time to review how you are spending your time. Is your decision to focus on certain tasks about avoiding the discomfort of doing the “important/urgent” tasks (as humans we like to avoid pain)? If this is part of your motivation, try some time management techniques like eating the frog, calendaring work tasks, the Pomodoro method or identifying and using your power hours.

When You Prioritize What Is Urgent, Everything Can Feel Like a Crisis

Very few things are actual crises. Prioritizing what is important versus urgent, delegating, and setting and maintaining healthy boundaries will go a long way toward reducing your stress, improving productivity, increasing a sense of control in your life and your practice.

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