What’s the most important big task on your schedule today?
And the most urgent?
Are they the same thing?
If so, then you’ll have no problem deciding what to do first. But if not, then you’re faced with a dilemma:
Should you do the more-important-but-less-urgent task first, at the risk of missing your deadline?
Or should you do the urgent thing first, at the risk of sidelining your most important work?
In the moment, most of us will tend to do the urgent task first, no matter that it’s less important than the other one. And in the moment, there’s probably no great harm done – after all, if it’s important enough to get on your schedule, then presumably Bad Things Will Happen if you don’t do it on time.
But if we step back and look at the big picture of weeks, months and even years… supposing you kept allowing the less-important-but-more-urgent tasks to take priority over more-important-but-less-urgent? Is there not a danger that, over time, you’ll do plenty of good work, but not as much great work as you could have done? And if that’s the case, what impact will it have on your career, or your business?
If you’ve read Steven Covey’s classic book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, then you’ll recognise his distinction between urgent and important tasks, as illustrated in the table below.
Covey argues that most of us spend too long in the left-hand column, either firefighting or rushing to meet deadlines in the top left quadrant, or wasting our time on unimportant busywork in the bottom left quadrant.
If we really want to achieve something remarkable, Covey says, we should spend all of our time in the top two quadrants, and none of it in the bottom two quadrants (after all, if it’s not important, why do it?). And we should spend as much time as possible in the top right quadrant, on the important-but-not-urgent tasks that create long-term value for others and long-term success for ourselves.
We also need to deal with the important-and-urgent tasks. But following Covey’s logic, if we do as much of the important stuff as possible before it becomes urgent, then gradually we should find that there is less to do in the top left quadrant. Of course, some of this is dependent on others, who may come to us with requests very late in the day, but we can at least eliminate the false urgency we create for ourselves by habitually leaving things to the last minute.
It’s hard to find a flaw in Covey’s argument. And most of the successful people I meet seem to be doing as he prescribes, by focusing relentlessly on their true priorities rather than the ephemeral demands of the day. I made a similar argument myself recently, on The 99 Percent, where I encouraged my readers to do ‘creative work first, reactive work second’.
Yet even when faced with these arguments and the evidence to back them up, many of us still find it hard to get off the hamster wheel of seemingly endless ‘urgent’ tasks in the left-hand column.
So what’s the difference between these two groups of people?
Unlike the people on the hamster wheel, the consistently high achievers treat the most important tasks as the most urgent. For them, there’s nothing more urgent than completing the task that will create the most value and have the biggest impact.
How to Inject Urgency into Your Plans
Having coached plenty of high achievers over the years, I’ve noticed two things about their mindset that give them a sense of urgency about the important challenges that the rest of us tend to put off until we’re ‘less busy’.
1. Fast forward
Living in the now is undoubtedly the most rewarding state to be in most of the time, especially when it comes to things like family, friends, food, meditation and holidays. It even applies to work, at the times when you need to be 100% focused on the task in hand to do an outstanding job.
But if you want to create or achieve remarkable things, then you also need to keep an eye on the future, and assess the likely impact of today’s actions on tomorrow’s outcomes. This is what the outstanding creators typically do – when they look at this week’s schedule, they look into the future, and decide their priorities according to medium-to-long-term results, not whether it will make today easier or harder.
Use imaginary time travel for real results:
- At the start of every week, look at the balance of urgent vs important tasks on your schedule.
- Among the urgent tasks, isolate the really important ones – i.e. the ones that will have serious consequences if you let people down. In your diary, schedule enough time to get these done.
- Now it’s time to prioritise the remaining tasks. In your imagination, ‘Fast forward’ one week – what is the likely outcome if you allow the urgent-but-not-so-important to take priority over the important-but-not-urgent? Note how satisfied you will be with your achievements.
- Now fast forward to the likely outcome if you do things the other way round – i.e. prioritising the important-but-not-urgent tasks. What difference does this make – particularly to your sense of achievement?
- Repeat the thought experiment using periods of one month, six months, one year and five years. Notice what difference it makes when you widen the timeframe.
2. Apply your own criteria
If you’re focused on today (rather than today + tomorrow) then it’s easy to get caught up in other people’s agenda – and find yourself making decisions based on their criteria. But once you start to look ahead, and see the likely consequences of your actions and the unfolding of related events, then you start to notice important factors coming into play. Things to avoid and things to aspire to. Opportunities and pitfalls.
In other words, you start to develop your own criteria for decision-making. Which makes it easier to assess your real priorities – and if it comes to it, easier to argue your point when there’s a clash with other people’s priorities.
Establish your own criteria:
- When you fast forward in your imagination, look out for likely desirable and undesirable consequences. Pay particular attention to consequences that affect your long-term plans.
- Use these ‘future consequences’ as criteria for the decisions you make today. Write them down, if it helps you keep them firmly in mind.
Now, some people might say that using your own criteria in this way is ‘selfish’. I disagree.
The reason I disagree is that criteria are ‘content-neutral’ – they could just as easily be about others’ needs or desires as your own. E.g. your plans could be about doing charitable work, or finding innovative new ways to help your customers more and charge them less.
The only ‘selfishness’ involved is in taking responsibility for making decisions according to what you believe is important, rather than taking your cue from others’ demands … which only takes you back to that hamster wheel.
Over to You
Do you agree that prioritising important-but-not-urgent tasks is the key to long-term success?
How do you inject a sense of urgency into long-term plans?
How do you deal with urgent demands while trying to make progress on your own plans?