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Recently, at our consulting firm, we were scheduled to begin strategy work with a new client. But, the night before our session, he emailed us, asking to postpone the meeting until the next week. He had something come up at the last minute that he felt couldn’t be put off.
We were able to accommodate his request but suggested that he put off the meeting by only a few hours rather than days. We warned him not to let the urgent overtake the important, a concept Stephen Covey popularized with his Time Management Matrix.
We have written before about urgent vs. important as it applies to decision-making, but wanted to address the topic again as it affects priorities and time management. The difference between the two is key to proper time management and vital to growing a business.
First, we need to define the two concepts. An "urgent item" is a task crying out for immediate attention, one that demands your attention. "Important" tasks are those that, once done, will add significant value to your organization.These are the tasks that move you forward. Tasks can be one or the other or else neither urgent nor important. Let’s look at each in more detail.
Neither urgent nor important
Some tasks are neither urgent nor important. These are the things that occupy our time but don’t add value to our organizations or personal lives, and no one is begging us to do them.
However, most of us spend at least part of each day on these time-wasters. Time spent browsing social media platforms, reading articles or posts that have no educational value or playing games or apps that distract us from more valuable activities fall into this category.
According to Statista, Americans spend about an hour a day playing video games, and Telegraph reports that browsing social media accounts can suck up close to another two hours each day. Obviously, if you are spending your precious time on items that are neither urgent nor important, it is time to quit cold turkey. Delete that game app from your phone. Relegate browsing your social media platforms to a few minutes after hours. We believe that you will find that you don’t miss the distractions.
"Urgent" tasks are those that beg for your attention but don’t necessarily add value. These are ringing phones, spam emails and texts, employees who repeatedly ask the same questions or regularly scheduled meetings that don’t produce results. Often, we believe we need to take care of these items, to “clear the decks” and move on to more important matters. This is the wrong approach. Always tackle important tasks first and get to the urgent, but not important, tasks later. It is easy to spend hours on unimportant tasks.
Urgent and important
Many tasks fall into the "urgent and important" category. Remember, these are matters that need your attention immediately and add value to the organization. These include customer/client issues and concerns, banking and financial matters and legal matters.
Most people recognize these items as important and act accordingly. To make sure you get to your urgent and important tasks each day, first make sure you have a to-do list. Review the items on the list and put stars by the three most critical tasks. Do these first. Once complete, put stars beside the next three most important tasks and complete those. If you do this, you will make sure you focus on the things that require your attention and are the most important to complete.
The category that is the most neglected on this matrix is "important" but not "urgent." Important tasks include developing employees or yourself to improve skills, documenting and improving processes and systems, developing metrics, researching better methods, organizing and planning. While all of these types of tasks can improve you and your organization, they are not urgent.
No one is screaming for you to document your processes. However, if you do document them, you will have a training tool for current and future employees and a way to improve quality. As we say, the first step to improve quality is to document your processes. Becoming more organized can add hours of productive time to your week, and developing a metric can alert you to problems before they get out of control.
"Important"tasks are critical to an organization’s success, but easy to put off because there is no urgency attached to completing them. To make sure you don’t fall into this trap, assign each important task to a single person with a completion date.
It's easy to let the urgent overtake the important. However, if you can prioritize your time to take care of those tasks that are both urgent and important, and schedule time and resources to ensure you tackle the important-but-not urgent items, you will create a more successful organization.