Important or Urgent First

by Guy Ralfe on January 6, 2010

The following quote was shared with me this week:

One of the problems of government is to separate the urgent from the important and make sure you’re dealing with the important and don’t let the urgent drive out the important.”

by Henry Kissinger

Substitute ‘government’ with ‘management’ or ‘life’ and you have one of the challenges businesses and individuals face on a daily basis. I performed a quick search on ‘Important vs Urgent’ and there is no shortage of writings on this topic, although most reference Steven Covey’s book Seven Secrets of Highly Effective People. One of the secrets is “First Things First” which Covey then dedicated an entire book on the topic alone due to its significance called, First Things First.

Basically the teaching is that because we as humans are so emotionally driven in our approach to the world, we tend to prioritize the items that we like and avoid those that  make our hearts sink. Covey advocates that tasks should be evaluated on two independent dimensions of “Importance” and “Urgency” to help us identify the type of tasks and deal with them appropriately. The evaluation against these dimensions is relative to you the individual or organization you represents objectives.

This categorization produces 4 groups of tasks.

  1. Important and Urgent – Important to the individual or organization and with a date constraint. These task are generally highly prioritized and completed.
  2. Important and Not Urgent – Important to the individual or organization but no date constraint. Often described as the “nice to haves” – Like reading that book, starting a diet or for the organization would be great if we had that report automated. These tasks often get procrastinated, consume bandwidth and cause frustration. Decide to do these or quit them entirely.
  3. Not Important and Urgent – Unimportant to the individual/organization but will be important to others. These can often be difficult to identify, particularly that they are unimportant to you and that is the measure. These tasks you need to quit firmly or you will be consumed by the demands of others… the demands of others is endless! Quit these quickly and as many as possible.
  4. Not Important and Not Urgent – Pure time wasters! This is playing solitaire on the computer or business activities that just consume time and effort for no return. Stop doing these tasks and suddenly you will have added time and resource to deal with the more difficult tasks.

Once you have been able to categorize the tasks you know which you need to quit, and which you will easily perform and the outliers. Start with the outliers, but remember to reward yourself as you complete a number of the outlier tasks with an easy task or two as that will help maintain your mood.

Another quote by a Chinese writer and educator Lin Yutang expresses this well:

Besides the noble art of getting things done, there is a nobler art of leaving things undone… The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of nonessentials.

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