Time Management: Know the Difference Between Urgent and Important

 

If we only had the luxury each day of only pursuing the activities that were meaningful and satisfying to us, the need for time management training would be practically eliminated. What usually causes problems for us is those things that intrude into our nicely planned schedule, screaming for attention. It isn’t long until our tidy schedule is reduced to a shambles and we are desperately scrambling to achieve anything valuable.

Several years ago, Stephen Covey popularized a handy little graph that you can use to guide you as you try to figure out how to deal with those urgent interruptions that create havoc for your schedule. It looks like this:

  Important Not Important
Urgent CRISIS TRIVIAL
Not Urgent FOCUS WASTE

The left column of the grid contains items that are IMPORTANT and the right column of the grid contains items that are NOT IMPORTANT. On the top row of the grid are items that are URGENT, which simply means that they are “in your face” right now, and the lower row contains things that are NOT URGENT, which means that the don’t have to be done immediately. The real challenge is to decide when something urgent is also important, which would make it a CRISIS, versus something that might be URGENT, but not really important, which would make it TRIVIAL. An example of something that is URGENT/NOT IMPORTANT might occur when, while you are work, you receive a call from one of your friends saying that he has a tee time scheduled in the next hour and needs you to play to complete the foursome because someone has dropped out at the last minute. This situation falls into the URGENT row because it is “right now,” but if your friend is not a business associate, client or prospect, it is most likely NOT IMPORTANT.

So the best way to use this tool is to get in the habit of mentally categorizing the new requests you get each day according to where they would fit on this grid. If you get a request from your boss to write up a proposal and get it back to him in two hours, that is both URGENT and IMPORTANT, which means it presents a time CRISIS and must be done NOW. However, if you get a request from a customer for some product information, it is IMPORTANT, but it doesn’t have to be followed up immediately, so it is not URGENT. In that case, you move it into the FOCUS quadrant, where it can be prioritized and scheduled to mesh with the rest of your schedule.

As you think through the types of things that interrupt your day, I am sure you can see lots of applications for the Urgent versus Important principle. Obviously, there will be overlap. For instance, emails could fall into ALL four categories, as could phone calls and any number of other activities. The goal is to help you see 1) how much time you are spending on the TRIVIA and WASTE categories (just delete those activities), and then 2) to see how many hours you could be moving into the FOCUS quadrant (instead of always dropping what you are doing and handling those requests instead). By learning how to spend as much time as possible in the FOCUS quadrant and only reserving the truly URGENT/IMPORTANT requests for immediate attention, you can move through life/work by focusing on activities that will keep you on track to working on your goals while living in a more relaxed, creative world.

Research has demonstrated that learning to apply the Urgent/Important principle can save most people about two hours of quality time each day. What would you do if you have two hours a day to invest in something besides frantically scrambling to catch up?

Here is one caveat. Don’t leave something in our focus box too long or it will eventually become a CRISIS. If doing your taxes is on your to do list on January 14, that is a FOCUS. If it is still on your to do list on April 14, that is a CRISIS!