Do you sometimes feel like you spend all your time managing crises? That your life is basically spent putting out one proverbial fire after another?At the end of the day do you feel completely drained and have no energy, and yet can’t point to anything you accomplished that really made a difference?If the answer is “Yes,” then you are probably confusing the urgent with the important.Dwight D. Eisenhower said “What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom importantUnderstanding this is huge in become a leader that gets things done.
The Difference Between Urgent and Important
Urgent means that a task requires immediate attention. These are the to-do’s that shout “Now!” Urgent tasks put us in a reactive mode, one marked by a defensive, negative, hurried, and narrowly-focused mindset.Important tasks are things that contribute to our long-term mission, values, and goals. Sometimes important tasks are also urgent, but typically they’re not. When we focus on important activities we operate in a responsive mode, which helps us remain calm, rational, and open to new opportunities.The Eisenhower Decision MatrixStephen Covey popularized the Eisenhower’s Decision Principle. He created a decision matrix to help individuals make the distinction between what’s important and not important and what’s urgent and not urgent, in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The matrix consists of a square divided into four boxes, or quadrants, labeled thusly: 1) Urgent/Important, 2) Not Urgent/Important, 3) Urgent/Not Important, and 4) Not Urgent/Not Important:Below is a detail outline about each quadrant and explain which one we should spend most of our time in if we desire to be our best and make the most of our lives.
Quadrant 1: Urgent and Important Tasks
Quadrant 1 tasks are both urgent and important. They’re tasks that require our immediate attention and also work towards fulfilling our long-term goals and missions in life.Quadrant 1 tasks typically consist of crises, problems, or deadlines.Here are a few specific examples of Urgent and Important tasks:
NEED TO LIST ITEMS THAT are Urgent and Important
With a bit of planning and organization, many Q1 tasks can be made more efficient or even eliminated outright. For example, instead of waiting until the last minute to work on a project (thus turning it into an urgent task), you could schedule your time so that you’re done a week in advance. Or instead of waiting for something in your house to fall apart and need fixing, you can follow a schedule of regular maintenance.While we’ll never be able to completely eliminate urgent and important tasks, we can significantly reduce them with a bit of proactivity and by spending more time in Quadrant 2.
Quadrant 2: Not Urgent but Important Tasks
Quadrant 2 tasks are the activities that don’t have a pressing deadline, but help you achieve your important personal, and work goals as well as help you fulfill your overall mission as a person.Q2 tasks are typically centered around strengthening relationships, planning for the future, and improving yourself.Here are some specific examples of Not Urgent but Important Tasks:
Seminars (personal growth)
Date night with spouse
According to Covey, we should seek to spend most of our time on Q2 activities, as they’re the ones that provide us lasting happiness, fulfillment, and success. Unfortunately, there are a couple key challenges that keep us from investing enough time and energy into Q2 tasks:
You don’t know what’s truly important to you. If you don’t know what are the priorities of your job description. If you don’t have any idea what values and goals matter most to you, you obviously won’t know what things you should be spending your time on to reach those aims! Instead, you’ll latch on to whatever stimuli and to-dos are most urgent. If you feel like you’re lacking a life’s mission or aren’t sure what your core values are, I highly recommend reading our articles on developing a life plan as well as defining your core values.
Present bias. We all have an inclination to focus on whatever is most pressing at the moment. Doing so is our default mode. It’s hard to get motivated to do something when there isn’t a deadline looming over our head. Departing from this fallback position takes willpower and self-discipline – qualities that don’t come naturally and must be actively cultivated and expressed.
Because Q2 activities aren’t pressing for our attention, we typically keep them forever on the backburner of our lives and tell ourselves, “I’ll get to those things ‘someday’ after I’ve taken care of this urgent stuff.” We even put off figuring out what’s most important in life, which of course only perpetuates a cycle where all we ever take care of are the most urgent to-dos on our list.But “someday” will never come; if you’re waiting to do the important stuff until your schedule clears up a little, trust me when I say that it won’t. You’ll always feel about as busy as you are now, and if anything, life just gets busier as you get older (at least until you retire).To overcome our inherent present-bias that prevents us from focusing on Quadrant 2 activities, we must live our lives intentionally and proactively. You can’t run your life in default mode. You have to consciously decide, “I’m going to make time for these things come hell or high water.”
Quadrant 3: Urgent and Not Important Tasks
Quadrant 3 tasks are activities that require our attention now (urgent), but don’t help us achieve our goals or fulfill our mission (not important). Most Q3 tasks are interruptions from other people and often involve helping them meet their own goals and fulfill their own priorities.Here are some specific examples of Quadrant 3 activities:
Most emails (some emails could be urgent and important)
Co-worker who comes by your desk during your prime working time to ask a favor
Friend drops in unannounced and wants your help with a chore
According to Covey, many people spend most of their time on Q3 tasks, all the while thinking they’re working in Q1. Because Q3 tasks do help others out, they definitely feel important. Plus they’re also usually tangible tasks, the completion of which gives you that sense of satisfaction that comes from checking something off your list.But while Q3 tasks may be important to others, they’re not important to you. They’re not necessarily bad, but they need to be balanced with your Q2 activities. Otherwise, you’ll end up feeling like you’re getting a lot done from day-to-day, while eventually realizing that you’re not actually making any progress in your own long-term goals. That’s a recipe for personal frustration and resentment towards other people.People who spend most of their time working on Urgent but Not Important Tasks often suffer from “Nice Person Syndrome,” and want to constantly please others at the expense of their own happiness.If that’s you, the solution is simple: Become more assertive and start to firmly (but politely) say no to most requests.
Quadrant 4: Not Urgent and Not Important Tasks
Quadrant 4 activities aren’t urgent and aren’t important. They are called “goofing off ” activities. Q4 activities aren’t pressing nor do they help you achieve long-term goals or fulfill your mission as a leader. They’re primarily distractions.Specific examples of Not Urgent and Not Important tasks include:
Mindlessly surfing the web
Playing video games
Scrolling through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram
Gabbing with your co-workers
I think if most of us did a time audit on ourselves, we’d find that we spend an inordinate amount of time on Q4 activities. I’m sure most of us have those “I’m wasting my life” moments after we’ve spent hours surfing the web and realize we could have used that time to pursue our more ennobling life goals. No? That’s just me? Dang.You don’t necessarily need to eliminate Q4 activities altogether from your life. After a particularly hectic and busy day, randomly browsing the internet or watching a favorite TV show for a half hour is exactly what my brain needs to decompress.Instead of aiming to completely rid yourself of Not Urgent and Not Important tasks, try to only spend a very limited amount of time on them. 5% or less of your waking hours is a good goal.
The Key to being more Productive: Spend More Time on Important Tasks
In our present shock world, the ability to filter the signal from the noise, or distinguish between what’s urgent and what’s truly important, is an essential skill to have.