Important Trumps Urgent

Red Alarm Clock

For most of us the words “important” and “urgent” sound a lot alike. They both mean something definitely needs to be done. But the two words mean different things, and they should bear different weight when you’re planning your time.

According to Merriam-Webster, urgent means “calling for immediate attention.” Important, on the other hand, means “marked by … significant worth or consequence.” In other words, important things are valuable; urgent things simply have a looming deadline. Urgent things are not necessarily important, nor do important thing have to be urgent.

Seth Godin posted about the distinction between urgent and important tasks. One of his best points: “If you focus on the important stuff, the urgent will take care of itself.”

In some cases, urgent things do sneak up on you and can’t be avoided. Crises happen. But on the whole, if you’re focusing on the important things early, urgent things either won’t happen or won’t matter in the important perspective. If you plan your tasks and projects based on their importance, taking care of important things will always take precedence and will thus (almost) always be taken care of before they can become truly urgent. If you’ve properly aligned your schedule toward the things that are important to you, you’ll never be slapping something together at the last minute because the things you’re creating will be too important to you to deserve that kind of treatment.

Seth Godin puts it this way, “[I]f you don’t have time to do it right, there’s no way in the world you have time to do it over.” If it wasn’t important enough for you to plan in advance, is it really important enough to stress over now? Is it important enough to do this urgent thing that it should take precedence over your important tasks, or should the urgent-but-unimportant task simply be eliminated?

How can you better align your to-do list with important things? First you need to decide what is actually important to you.

  • Review your current task or projects list. If you don’t have such lists, take the time to sit down and make a list of everything you’re spending time thinking about right now. Everything.
  • Justify to yourself why you spend time working on each project or type of task. If you’ve got a large list, you might want to make a few notes to yourself as you go through.
  • Weigh the justifications. Is your why for a project compelling? Does the justification make the project seem important?
  • Ditch the lightweights. If the justification is weak and the project now seems a little frivolous compared to other things on the list, drop it. It will only contribute to the amount of urgent stuff you have bogging down your important progress.

This sort of assessment will take time; it might even make your urgent tasks more pressing because of the time you dedicated to it. But this assessment and culling is important. To quote Seth once more, “Urgent is not an excuse,” and it should never hold you back from giving your attention to the things that are truly important.

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