Is it Important, or Merely Urgent?
Approximately a 5 minute read
It’s possible to be very busy without being very effective. Rushing from one task to another, feeling like you never have enough time to get it all done and being frequently exhausted, overwhelmed and frustrated, rarely feeling that you are achieving anything worthwhile.
It’s equally possible to be less busy, to do less, and yet to live a more spacious, meaningful, satisfying life.
The difference lies in how proactive you are. Does life happen to you, putting you in a state of constant reaction, or do you take the initiative and prioritize important activities over urgent ones?
In the previous article we talked about focusing on your own response and on things you can influence, and cutting down the energy you waste on issues you have no control over.
Now, we’re going to build on that by exploring the distinction between “important” activities, and “urgent” ones.
Again, this concept is not mine – it comes from Steven Covey in his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
How are you spending your days?
In “Habit 3,” in Part 2 of The 7 Habits, Covey shares a diagram with four quadrants1. We spend our time in some combination of these four ways:
- activities that are both urgent and important (Quadrant 1 in the diagram below),
- activities that are important, but not urgent (Quadrant 2 in the diagram below),
- activities that are urgent, but not important (Quadrant 3), and
- activities that are neither urgent nor important (Quadrant 4).
Take a look at the following examples of the kinds of activities that fit into each quadrant. See if you can think of some examples of your own.
*In Quadrant 4, in the diagram above, I wrote “some” forms of procrastination rather than “all,” because sometimes procrastination is actually a clue that you need to slow down in some way.
Are you procrastinating on something because it’s difficult or uncomfortable to do, or because it wouldn’t be a wise thing to do?
If you’ve been investing time in activities like reflection/journaling/meditation, your awareness/intuition will be clearer and it will be easier to get to the bottom of where your procrastination is coming from.
On the other hand, if you haven’t been investing in any form of self-renewal/self-reflection, maybe your procrastination is telling you it’s time you did?
Which quadrant do you spend the most time in?
For many people, it's Quadrant 1. And then when crisis management becomes too draining, they retreat to Quadrants 3 or 4, collapsing in front of Netflix or getting sucked into the social media vortex.
Can you see that most of the crises in Quadrant 1, in the diagram above, could be avoided or at least mitigated by regular investment in Quadrant 2?
And can you see that Quadrants 3 and 4 are not the place to find rejuvenation? True rest and rejuvenation, which leaves you replenished and reduces your vulnerability to disasters and emergencies, lies in Quadrant 2.
Identifying important versus urgent activities
The most important activities, usually, involve caring for yourself, your end of your interactions with the world, and your relationships.
Important things are easy to identify using the question that Covey poses in his book: “What could I do (that I’m not doing now), that if I did it regularly would significantly raise the quality of my life?”
All of the answers that you might come up with in response to that question involve important activities.
All of them are to be found in your Circles of Response and Influence (see Part 3 and Part 4); they basically involve caring for yourself, your end of your interactions with the world, and your relationships.
Identifying urgent activities is easy too – they’re the things that take all your time and energy so you have nothing left over to do the things you identify as important, but not urgent.
Urgent things demand your attention and are difficult to ignore, but they draw you away from what is important.
But I don't have time...
There is only one way to make everything fit.
You have to put the important stuff first.
Ok, so it’s clear that Quadrant 2 is where we need to be. But what if you have so much going on in Quadrant 1 that you have no time for Quadrant 2?
In The 7 Habits, Covey shares an analogy that’s helpful here.
Imagine a large jar with a wide mouth. Beside it are 3 bowls. One contains large round stones, another has smaller pebbles in it, and the third holds fine sand.
The large stones represent the big things in your life – the important things.
The regular actions necessary to take care of yours and your family’s health, your relationships, and your most important goals, are all examples of things that could be represented by these large stones.
The small stones and the sand represent all the other stuff – the small, urgent stuff. The drama.
You are supposed to fit all of this into the jar that represents your life.
There is only one way to make it all fit. You have to put the big stones in FIRST.
Then, you can shake the small stones down amongst them, and finally, the sand will filter its way in to fill the gaps.
That’s the nature of the small, urgent stuff: it fills every gap you leave for it.
Prioritizing the important things shrinks the urgencies down to a manageble size
A certain amount of urgency in our lives is unavoidable. Unexpected events occur and as they do, we have to deal with them the best we can, sometimes without having had any chance to prepare for them beforehand.
But living your life lurching from one emergency to another, feeling like no sooner do you get one problem handled than another knocks you over from behind, is an indication that you need to be more proactive.
Done consistently, important Quadrant 2 activities act to pull more of your life into your control and to marginalize the Quadrant 1 urgencies that drain your time and energy.
The next three diagrams illustrate what happens when you allow your attention to be drawn to urgent things, versus focusing on the important things.
Attending to the really important things
Your long-term life goals, the things you really care about and want to make a difference to, belong in Quadrant 2. They’re important, enormously so, but they often get pushed off center-stage.
When life’s urgencies push our important goals aside, we tend to either give up on them or to try to achieve them via a degree of forcefulness, using will power and motivational techniques.
The idea that motivation and will power will get you to your goals is part of an old story which says that the only way to get anything to change is to make it happen, using some form of forcefulness. So, we have to grab what we can, pressure ourselves and others, do whatever it takes. No pain, no gain.
Ninety-odd percent of New Year’s resolutions end up lying in the gutter by the end of January because this story that says that force is the only way to get things done is not working for us.
There’s another approach for attending to the really important, longer term goals, the things that cannot be built overnight, which fits into and supports a more gentle, flowing, generous, and hopeful story.
Coming up next
In Part 6, we’ll explore how to keep your important goals center stage in your life by completely abandoning the “no pain no gain” concept and replacing it with something entirely different.
Please leave a comment
Please scroll down (or use keyboard short cut "Ctrl+Fn+End" to jump down) and leave a comment to tell me what you think about the ideas in this post — thank you in advance!
- Stephen Covey’s four quadrants of time management has also been called “Eisenhower's Urgent/Important Principle.”