Choosing the important over the urgent

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[Michael here] I recently heard a quote by Seth Godin:

“If you take care of important things, the urgent things don't show up as often. The opposite is never true.” 

So what is the difference between urgent and important? How does one discern between the two, and why bother anyway? Well, urgent means putting out fires. Important means making sure fires don’t flare up in the first place. In the case of real fires, it is much cheaper and less time consuming with preventive work than actual firefighting and subsequent rebuilding!

I work with project management and design management for building projects, and in my field that is quite obviously true – if you (for instance) don’t plan for ventilation shafts through the building (important) you will have a lot of problems to solve during the building phase (urgent). The same holds true for our personal lives as well, but for some reason I find it easier to see the difference in my work than in my personal life, probably because the schedules are shorter. There is a certain time limit for planning the building, whereas in life it is possible to put things off for a longer period of time, or maybe to next year! 

Two questions to be answered as honestly as you can:

1. What is the most important thing that you have been distracted from doing?

2. What is the urgent thing you have been doing, that has kept you distracted from that which is important?

For me, these are not always easy questions to answer, since I’d rather not look at my own shortcomings. I wish I were better at planning and sticking to the plan. I allow myself to get distracted and then procrastination (the evil cousin of bad conscience) kicks in. And in the wake of procrastination, stuff suddenly becomes urgent. 

The “Eisenhower principle” is about this problem:

In a speech 1954 he said "I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent." But how do we distinguish between the two, how do we know the difference? Here is one way of sorting out the two

"Important activities have an outcome that leads to us achieving our goals, whether these are professional or personal.

Urgent activities demand immediate attention, and are usually associated with achieving someone else's goals. They are often the ones we concentrate on and they demand attention because the consequences of not dealing with them are immediate.

When we know which activities are important and which are urgent, we can overcome the natural tendency to focus on unimportant urgent activities, so that we can clear enough time to do what's essential for our success. This is the way we move from "firefighting" into a position where we can grow our businesses and our careers."

How this can be done in practice:

There are lots of more or less time-consuming ways of figuring out how to use this in practice, but I like the method of “the one thing today”:

If you can only get one thing done today, what would that be?

There is a danger with this method in that it is tempting to go for the urgent, so double-check if it is your goal or someone else’s goal that is being achieved (see above). Be certain to make a priority of the important :) 

Here are two principles that are demanding and uncomfortable, but will be rewarding in the long run:

Choose what you want the most over what you want now (for instance choosing the longterm goal of health versus having a donut to go with the coffe)

Choose to do what is important over that which is urgent (like making time for planning vacations in good time rather than waiting until there is little time left)

I have no doubt that if I can discipline myself to follow these principles on a more consistent basis, my life will become easier. 

So to add to the long list of things of both urgent and important things that need to be done, will you add the extra task of sorting out which ones are important respectively urgent? :) 

Regards / Michael 

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