Important vs Urgent: a time management technique for deciding what to do

This is almost not a time management technique so much as a time management principle - a useful distinction to clarify thought. Stephen Covey, in his 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, points out that the word "priority" often refers to two separate concepts: "Top Priority" sometimes means the most important thing, and sometimes means the most urgent thing.

In point of fact, tasks can be important, urgent, both, or neither.

  • Quadrant 1: Both Important and Urgent
  • Quadrant 2: Important but Not Urgent
  • Quadrant 3: Urgent but Not Important
  • Quadrant 4: Neither Important nor Urgent

Obviously anything in the 1st quadrant is top priority, and most people have no trouble identifying that. The trouble comes when you've finished all of your 1st-quadrant stuff, and need to decide what to do next. Many people -- having spent so much time in fire-fighting mode -- turn to the stuff in quadrant 4. It seems like it should be done next because it's urgent, but in point of fact it does little or nothing towards accomplishing your goals.
Covey argues that as much as possible, work should be done in quadrant 2. This mode of operation offers two advantages:

  1. Unlike quadrant 4 work, quadrant 2 work actually moves you towards your goals
  2. When work is not done in quadrant 2, it eventually moves into quadrant 1. Doing the work while it's in quadrant 2 means you spend a lot less time in stressed-out, fire-fighting mode.

An Example
You come in to work at 8AM, and your boss says that a major client didn't get a vital piece of information, and can't place their order without it. Clearly the first priority of the day is to get that information to your client. Say it takes an hour to track down the information, type it up, send it to the client, and verify receipt.

Now it's 9AM, and you have to decide what to do next.

Too often, people start working on things out of quadrant 4, like responding to emails from coworkers who will never have enough information to satisfy them, or doing filing to get it off the top of your desk.

Well what's wrong with that? I need to get my filing done, don't I?

You do. But then you'll look back at the end of the day to find that you didn't get anything accomplished. Suppose instead that you chose to work on that report that will be presented at the conference next month. Then at the end of the day you'll feel like you really made progress. And you'll probably still have time to get at least some of your filing done.

If you start in Quadrant 4, you'll get all of your filing done, and none of the work for your report. If you start in Quadrant 2, you'll get some of your filing done, and some of the work for your report. And next month, you won't have to pull an all-nighter to finish the report on time.

Doesn't sound like you? Go back to Time Management Hacks and look for a time management technique that fits you better.

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