Important vs. urgent (trust me, they’re not the same)
“Most of us spend too much time on what is urgent and not enough time on what is important” - Stephen Covey
I’d never thought much about the difference between something that is “important” and something that is “urgent”. If you’d handed me an assignment and told me it was “urgent”, my ears would hear “do this important thing NOW!”.
Then I read a book called 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens by Sean Covey. I know, I know, the title is super cheesy (the cover, which features a pair of headphones hanging out of a jean pocket, is even cheesier). Bear with me here.
7 Habit of Highly Effective Teens is a spinoff of the book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. I haven’t read the original so I can’t tell you what sort of exclusive information is offered only in the teen version or what they’re withholding from us younger folk until we grow up. All I can tell you is, the “7 Habits” are gold and you should read (a version of) this book.
What changed my view of “urgent vs. important” was habit #3 - “Put First Things First”. The chapter featured a table with four simple squares. The top was labeled “urgent” and “non-urgent”, and the left side was labeled “important” and “non-important”. The premise was that every single task could be sorted into one of these four quadrants. Already, I was blown away. How could something urgent be unimportant? Didn’t a looming deadline inherently make something important?
I looked through the examples of each category, continued reading the chapter, and everything slowly clicked into place. What I learned is this - it is up to you to manage your time. You have a certain number of hours in the day and you must decide where you’ll allocate those precious 24.
Obviously, you don’t want to be in the “non-urgent, unimportant” sector, fiddling away on Instagram and binging Netflix all day.
You also don’t want to be trapped in the “urgent, important” sector. You might be getting important things done, but you’ll live your life in a constant race against the clock, reacting to everything as it is thrown at you.
And the “urgent, non-important sector”? This is the time that’s swallowed up by useless meetings, busywork assignments, and shallow conversations. You’ll need a large heaping of self-advocacy and a pinch of the word “no” to get out of it.
The sweet spot? The golden sector? The almighty quadrant? The only one left: “Non-urgent, important”. Unfortunately, it also happens to be the most difficult sector to achieve. It takes self-discipline, self-advocacy, and careful planning to keep yourself firmly planted here. But trust me, it’s worth it. This is the place from which you can achieve your long-term goals, build some balance into your life, develop your relationships, etc. etc. All the good stuff.
So what is the key to achieving life in this sector? Prioritizing.
Bam. Blog post over. Secret to life revealed.
Just kidding, it’s not that easy. Prioritizing takes time and too often we let it fall by the wayside. Our to-do list is already long enough, so why add another item to it? “Prioritize to-do list”. It’s also difficult to do - feelings of guilt and false obligation keep us tied down to the wrong things.
But you must push through that discomfort and prioritize that monster of a to-do list. Because if you don’t, you’ll have no clear plan, no clear priorities, and you’ll pour your energy into whatever to-do catches your eye first. You’ll allow deadlines to creep up until you’re left with no choice but to shove everything aside to meet them.
When you set priorities, however, you ensure that the most important parts of your life won’t get left behind. You accept responsibility for creating the life you want.
When should you prioritize?
Prioritizing is a practice you need to apply to your entire life on the macro scale by saying no to commitments, spending more time with loved ones, etc. But that’s enough for a whole ‘nother blog post.
For now, let’s zoom into a much more manageable unit of time - a day. In order to make the most of each and every day, you have to define what is most important each morning. Three is a good number. If you choose three, well-defined, important tasks to focus on each day, you will move towards the life you dream of living.
How do you prioritize?
So how do you set priorities? Ask yourself these questions to help you decide.
What aligns most closely with your goals?
Long-term goals are a difficult beast to tackle simply because there’s low accountability. There’s no one at your back reminding you to get going on them and usually there’s no imminent consequence for not making moves towards them.
When choosing which tasks to prioritize, consider not only what needs to get done in the short-term, but make sure to prioritize at least one item that your future self will thank you for doing.
What will make everything else easier?
Perhaps you need to spend some time planning a content calendar for your blog. It’s a big task and you’d rather do something simpler and more immediate - writing next week’s blog post. But with no plan for the month, you have no idea what to write about, how to connect the content to your previous blog posts. You feel lost.
If you invest some time into planning, everything else will go much more smoothly and quickly. It’ll be easier to plan your social media calendar, you’ll know exactly what to write, you’ll feel more organized and motivated.
What prioritizes your own progress and happiness?
It’s important to spend time on our relationships and on doing kind things for others, but too often we fall into guilt traps and end up doing things for other people that are neither our responsibility nor a good use of our time.
Before you ask yourself what others want you to do, ask yourself what you can do for your own success.
The gist of it is: prioritize what is important and non-urgent, and the rest of your life will fall into place.
Tips for success
Keep a list and a pen next to you to record little to-dos that pop into your head and threaten to ruin your workflow. You can continue working on your priorities and get to all of those little tasks sometime later in the day in one swift go.
Highlight these priorities on your to-do list and make sure it’s close at hand the entire day. Setting priorities won’t be any help if you forget about them and turn to busywork instead.
Schedule the priorities for the most high-energy times of the day. If you’re an early riser like me and you fill your morning with responding to e-mails and checking social media, you’ll find yourself wanting a nap right about when you need to tackle your most exhausting (yet important) tasks. Instead, schedule your priorities during high-energy periods.
To help you set your own “daily 3” I created this simple daily planner. There’s a full-page version as well as a half-sheet. Use it to remind you of the criteria against which to judge your to-do list and then write your priorities in the space provided. Let me know how it works for you!
And for today’s question, let’s put this blog post into practice! What are YOUR 3 priorities for today?