The idea of contrasting Importance and Urgency is nothing new. Dwight Eisenhower supposedly came up with the concept, presumably in the mid-20th century, although I haven’t yet found any compelling evidence, and Stephen Covey popularized it in his 1989 book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.
I was first exposed to the idea in 1999 in Joel Peterson’s classroom at Stanford, and I’ve been reflecting on it for the last decade because it’s a topic that comes up constantly in my work with coaching clients and MBA students. Why is it so significant? First, let’s clarify what we mean:
Important activities are truly meaningful and fulfilling--to you, to the people who matter to you, to your organization, or to some cause that you believe in. They’re not necessarily time-dependent; they can be accomplished almost anytime, and if they go undone for a short stretch no one may even notice.
Urgent activities have a deadline attached to them that matters to someone—although not necessarily to you. They are time-dependent, at least in someone’s mind, and if they go undone that someone is going to be unhappy. They’re not necessarily meaningful or fulfilling, and accomplishing them may not actually make a significant difference.
When we appreciate the difference between importance and urgency, we can categorize our activities and items on our to-do lists (and items that other people want to put on our to-list) according to this 2x2 matrix, which illustrates some simple but powerful distinctions.
Important But Not Urgent activities are like brushing our teeth (or exercise or meditation): There are no real consequences if we skip a day, but if that becomes a trend we’ll miss out on significant benefits and may run into serious problems. These activities tend to matter much more to us than to others.
As a result we need to take particular care to protect them on our calendars—without strong boundaries to preserve the necessary time, they’ll get pushed off and left behind. We also need to cultivate consistent habits around these activities in order to build sustainable commitments—if we have to stop and think each time we contemplate pursuing them, we’ll follow through much less often. But we’ll inevitably falter, and the key is getting back on track as soon as possible.
Unimportant & Not Urgent activities are mindless exercises in watching our time and attention run down the drain. They have a role to play when we’re stressed or depleted, and it’s unhelpful to try to banish them from our lives, but we need to put limits on them and be sure to avoid engaging in them as a form of "pseudo-work."
This is when we imagine we’re doing meaningful work, but we’re really just fooling ourselves and play-acting at being productive. Far better to engage in some actual, honest mindless recreation, because at least then we’re enjoying and replenishing ourselves. The key is to insure that we don’t get stuck in these activities—they’re often intentionally designed to captivate us when we’re susceptible to their appeal, and it can be difficult to break away when we’ve exhausted their benefits.
Unimportant But Urgent activities matter to someone else, but not to us. We feel pressure to complete them (not only from others, but also from ourselves), and yet doing so will make a minimal difference in our efforts to achieve our goals. We can’t neglect them entirely, but we must be ruthless about triaging and prioritizing.
There are multiple issues to navigate here: Dismissing these activities entirely runs the risk of offending the people to whom they matter—and yet if we strive to never give offense we allow others to dictate where we should direct our attention and spend our time. We live immersed in a sea of devices and systems that are designed to interrupt us constantly—and yet if we turn our back on these tools entirely we may miss out on their benefits. And perhaps most importantly, even though we know intellectually that these issues are unimportant, we’re highly sensitive to the anxiety and other feelings generated by a sense of urgency—and yet being keenly attuned to our emotions is a critical skill in professional life.
Important & Urgent activities are like fire alarms: They capture our attention automatically, and we mobilize to address them immediately. The problem is that other people want all the items on their agenda to be treated this way. The key is recognizing that very few items on our agenda actually fall into this category.
There’s little risk of failing to respond to fire alarms and dealing with the blaze that triggered them—but particularly in competitive environments or high-profile roles where the cost of failure is real, there’s a significant risk of treating everything like a fire drill, and this is a certain path to eventual underperformance and burnout.
Embedded in this framework is an inherent tension that results in a constant battle: The time and attention we would otherwise devote to Important But Not Urgent activities is often sacrificed to address Unimportant But Urgent matters. The challenge is that we’re the only ones who care about the former, while the latter have many advocates.
So what can we do? There’s no simple answer to the dilemmas posed here, but there are several practices that can help:
Make time for reflection
If we don’t stop on a regular basis to consider what’s truly meaningful and fulfilling to us—and to identify the important activities that allow us to realize that meaning and feel a sense of fulfillment—our calendars and our to-do lists will reflect the priorities of others, not our own.
Engage in consistent self-care
The ability to grasp the distinctions above, to determine where activities truly belong, and to gracefully communicate these decisions to others rests on a solid foundation of self-care. Engaging in meditation (or other forms of mindfulness), regular exercise, and good sleep hygiene, while minimizing unnecessary stress all contribute to our ability to do this work more effectively.
Address our emotions
The practices above will also help us manage our emotions, and we can take this a step further by addressing our emotions directly. Much of our counterproductive behavior, from wasting time in "pseudo-work" to neglecting important tasks in favor of urgent ones, has its roots in an emotional response. This isn’t to suggest that feelings are "bad" and logic is "good"—our emotions are essential inputs into our reasoning process, not an opposing force. But we’re better able to make use of our emotions when we’re aware of them and able to assess their validity. This entails feeling them within ourselves (literally—most emotions are physiological events before they register in consciousness), labeling them with accurate terminology, and articulating them to others in safe, trusting relationships.