5 Ways to Choose Important Over Urgent
People tend to choose urgent tasks they can complete quickly and put off important tasks that take longer to complete. (The Mere Urgency Effect)
Important tasks take longer and are more demanding than unimportant urgencies.
The Mere Urgency Effect:
You tend to delay important tasks by saying, “Just let me finish this and I’ll do that later.” But we all know that ‘later’ seldom comes.
The Mere Urgency Effect indicates …
- We choose unimportant tasks with lower payoffs over important tasks with better payoffs.
- We let artificial deadlines drive us to choose unimportant tasks.
You didn’t change the oil in your car because you had more urgent things to do. One day the car starts making scary noises. You neglected the important – scheduled maintenance. Now you have an urgency.
The same can be said for relationship building. You just don’t have time! But skillful leaders build and strengthen relationships before they need them.
In an age when running around with your hair on fire is desired and admired, important work gets pushed aside.
5 ways to choose important over urgent:
- Put important work on your calendar.
- Expect important work to take longer than expected.*
- Use values to guide decisions.
- Establish short-term goals for long-term projects. Suppose you have an important task due at the end of the week. Create effective urgency by setting a goal to be completed by 3:00 p.m. today. (Set short-term daily goals for important long-term work.)
- Turn off social media. Check email at scheduled intervals. Turn off email alerts. (Yes, not everyone can do this.)
Bonus: Identify important work with your team or boss. Ask, “What’s important this week?” It helps to know what’s important if you plan to do what’s important.
How might leaders choose important over urgent?
How might leaders distinguish between important work and unimportant urgencies?
*Dear Dan: I Can’t Stop Helping People.
Great and very useful post! As you know, this is a recurring theme in teaching effective leadership, and early in my career I had to learn to differentiate quickly between the urgent and the important, lest I be overwhelmed by the urgent. As you point out, this requires a constant focus on “the mission” and a commitment to identify “what’s important now.” Handling the urgent tasks may give more short-term satisfaction, but when yesterday’s “important” becomes today’s “urgent,” that satisfied feeling fades quickly! I found that urgent tasks frequently fell into the category of things that could and should be delegated, freeing more of my time for the important issues in a “focus forward” strategy. I also had to learn that what may be presented to me by others as urgent is not really important to my “roles and goals,” requiring me to redirect those concerns for a more appropriate resolution. Good stuff here!
Thanks Jim. The message I take is when faced with something that seems urgent consider delegating or redirecting. This reminds me that over-eagerness to help is a huge hindrance to leaders. Yes, maintain the spirit of helpfulness. But sometimes helping is pointing someone in the right direction or helping them connect with the right person. Cheers
Delegating opportunities to help to people on your team also promotes their growth and learning. It allows your team to build trust and relationships with others. It’s a win-win!
Thanks Dr. P. Yes, it’s good to delegate for development. It’s not simply do you want to do something or not, but what will elevate the skills of the people around you.
Hi Dan, I think you hit on the universal problem that we can all improve. What a great post and perfect example. We are always struggling to balance these things because our urgent is really really urgent but our important is VITAL. Thanks! Hope we’ll all make big strides this week in this area 🙂
Thanks Cate. Your language is helpful to me. “really really urgent cp important is vital.”… Of course some urgencies require immediate attention. If the house is on fire, you can follow up with your customers later. 🙂
Sometimes it’s hard to push toward a strategic payoff that will position you effectively in the future when you can make a lot of money today by addressing what’s on hand. Keeping the strategic vision in there too is the key.
Important/urgent is another one of those distinctions like easy/simple that’s a lot more subtle than might be thought!
Thanks Mitch. I can’t help but think of short-term wins and long-term wins as I read your comment. But you point is well taken. Perhaps the most we can expect from a post like this is raised consciousness to the issue and a little more resolve to do what matters most instead of what seems most pressing in the moment.
I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir … our society glorifies quick wins because many love the recognition and the perception it reflects onto those they lead. Politicians are famous/infamous for this. Meanwhile, many of us, who like to toil behind the scenes with no recognition (because we’re fine with very little accolades) are made to feel that our long term strategies seem to be valued less in our society. In worse case scenarios, leaders who are strong at long-term thinking because they are perceived to not be producing the results of leaders focused on short term quick wins … which leads to the perception that the long term thinker isn’t as valuable on the team and is the first one to be cut.
Thanks Michael. It’s strange, but when we are doing the urgent it feels like we’re doing something important. And when we are doing the important it seems dull, even unimportant. Remember the last time you waited for an oil change. It sure didn’t seem very glamorous or important.
Urgent feels glamorous. Important often seems boring and dull.
Another interesting way to help prioritize: reversible vs. irreversible & consequential vs. inconsequential: https://fs.blog/2018/09/decision-matrix/
Thanks Daniel. The article was really helpful.
Great post – I stress this repeatedly when conducting the 5 Choices of Extraordinary Productivity class for my clients. I have the attendees take a few minutes, look at what roles they deem are important, and what key activities – not the urgent, not the minutia or the easiest to complete – but the key activities that are important to that role. Then we get busy mapping how and when to take action on the key activities first – no matter the difficulty or time consuming. The satisfaction experiences and the results they share weeks later – for even a single key activity (or Big Rock as the course identifies it) accomplished is awesome to witness.
Excellent posts by all! Sometimes I think our technology inhibits our ability to differentiate between urgent and important…and long-term planning/strategy (thank you for pointing that out, Michael LaPointe). The speed and viral nature of emails, tweets, and Instagrams have crept into our daily life, and focused our attention on urgency and immediate response. Everyone’s hair seems to be on fire 24/7.
I ask myself questions:
1. What must be done today? Really “must”, like send out budget draft till 26th… that is already done till now 🙂
2. Which tasks are important for this week’s Big 3 (that are set on Monday; yes, budget is there).
3. What can I do today to get ahead tomorrow (that will change my or someone’s work for better)?
4. What would I do if I cannot come tomorrow (and several more days, let’s say).
5. What tasks are postponed too many times (read advice in one place: must do the task after postponing three times).
Based on answers all tasks get numbers 1,2,3 and so on, and should be done in this order. Even if not all of them are done till end of the day, most important are done. And this is the reason to be happy with this day’s work.