The first time I understood the difference of something being important vs. urgent came from a piece from Seth Godin:
You know you should be focusing on the long-term journey, on building out the facility, signing up new customers or finishing your dissertation.
But instead, there’s a queue of urgent things, all justifiable, all requiring you and you alone to handle them. And so you do, pushing off the important in favor of the urgent.
Of course, everyone has this challenge, but some people manage to get past it. Even you, the last time you made a major move forward. Think about it–those urgencies from a few years ago: who’s handling them now?
The reason we go for urgent is that it makes us feel competent. We’re good at it. We didn’t used to be, but we are now.
Important, on the other hand, is fraught with fear, with uncertainty and with the risk of failure.
Now that you know why, you can dance with it.
I thought, “OK, this is a dichotomy. Things can either be important, or they can be urgent — and I should be focusing on the important things vs. the urgent things.”
But, as with most things, it’s more complex than that. Things aren’t just important or just urgent, it’s actually more of a 2×2 matrix.
- Urgent and important
- Important and not urgent
- Urgent and not important
- Not urgent and not important
Using my earlier logic, I try to spend as much time on the right hand side in quadrants 1 and 2 as possible — the important work. But the challenge is taking time for quadrant 2: the things that are important but do not feel urgent.
It’s easy for us to naturally take care of important AND urgent work, but we’ll often skip over into quadrant 3 — things that are urgent but not important — before we tackle important work that isn’t urgent.
Worse, we go and hide in something that’s neither important or urgent (social media, some email, consuming content).
To ensure that we’re taking care of the work in quadrant 2, the things that are important but not urgent, we need to be proactive in setting aside time on our calendar to do so. Otherwise, these items will live on our to do lists, haunting us because we know we should be doing it, and yet never getting prioritized.
And it’s important, because this is where you really make strides.