Urgent vs Important

It’s a typical busy morning.  You arrive at your winery to find that the dishwasher is broken, you have a large group arriving at 11am, and the key team member you had scheduled to host them just called in sick.  Budgets are due in two weeks and you had been planning to spend the day working on them.  Do you now need to put this important work on the back burner? Make it this year’s resolution to focus on the important things.

In the 1960s, Charles Hummel published a little booklet called Tyranny of the Urgent, and it quickly became a business classic. (Hummel’s concepts became the foundation of works like Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.) Hummel noticed that there’s a natural tension between the urgent and the important — and far too often, the urgent wins.  In business, this means that crises often take priority over things like strategy, planning, process improvement, and team building. The urgent, though less important, is prioritized, and the important is put on the back burner.

The challenge we all face is that “Urgent” items often masquerades as “Important.”  But there’s a simple litmus test to help identify the truly important: Ask yourself if the activity will make a significant and lasting positive impact on the business.  Identifying and working on the “Important” stuff requires focus and concentration. As managers, this is where we want to be spending the majority of our time.

Below is a sample matrix that separates urgent from important and the tasks that belong in each quadrant:  

Quadrant 2
Both Important & Urgent
Easy to prioritize . . . Just do
it. Example: Sales and customer-
event-employee related crises.
Quadrant 1
Important but not Urgent
This is where real strategic success, professional and personal growth
lies. Hard to find the time because
it could always be done tomorrow.
Example: Planning, budgeting, metrics analysis, improving event/
brand experience, marketing,
outreach, vendor management,
staff coaching and training.
Quadrant 3
Urgent but not Important 
Unless we find a solution for
quadrant #3 activities we will
never get to quadrant #1.
Example: Some management
requests, meetings you don’t really need to be in on, e-mail you really don’t need to be copied on.
Quadrant 4
Neither Important nor Urgent
Procrastinator’s paradise, a no
brainer to ignore unless you are a
huge procrastinator, then watch
out for time sucks masquerading as the “faux” important. Example: Personal phone calls, junk mail,
junk emails, web surfing.

What will it take for us to spend more time in Quadrant 1 (Important but not Urgent)?  Our goal should be to greatly reduce and almost eliminate our time spent in Quadrant 3 (Urgent but not Important) activities.  We need to delegate more of our Quadrant 2 (Important and Urgent) activities which may seem scary, but is the sign of a true leader.

Schedule Big Rocks

When something is important, we need to prioritize it. Every day we manage urgency and importance simultaneously. Important projects require time and mental discipline to complete.

Managers tend to get stuck in the urgent, while leaders factor in time to take care of the important things.  Covey’s Seven Habits calls this making room and time for the “Big Rocks.”

In this image, if the Big Rocks are our quadrant 1 activities – our important stuff – and the sand is all the other stuff that takes up our time and the glass jar is all the time we have available, then how can we ever find time to get to these big rocks?  Put the big rocks in the jar first and then fill in the sand around them.

This is the secret of successful leaders.  It is also the difference between managers and leaders and we need to be both.  There is no way we can effectively juggle both important and urgent on our own. To do this, we need great staff, great processes, training of systems and real discipline to move from the urgent to the important. Time spent in Quadrant 1 is not a luxury, it is a necessity for every successful manager.

Time Management Best Practices  

This sounds good, but realistically, how are we going to make it happen?  Here are some best practices:

Prioritize.  Be ruthless, and stick to it!   Make a list of the five most important things you need to do to positively impact your business.  These are our Quadrant 1 activities.  The most important use of this list is that it provides clarity about what is NOT on the list.

Act.  With urgent problems and conflicts, act immediately.  If we dwell on them and don’t act we will just be distracted.  Bias towards action here is critical.

Delegate.  Entrust your team, especially with urgent items.  Don’t hoard them.  Be ruthless about Quadrant 3.  Push yourself to delegate more in Quadrant 2.  Get your ego out of the way.  Urgent does not necessarily mean complex.

Take Control.  Literally make an appointment with yourself.  Set aside time – especially early and late – for focusing on the ‘important.’  Block off time on your calendar, when your office door will be shut or you go offsite.  The gift of time is not something that your boss is ever going to give you; it is a discipline you have to create for yourself.  Your success depends on it.

Successful managers are great delegators – not abdicators, but real delegators.  Successful leaders take it a step further and are constantly working themselves out of a job.  For some this may be counter intuitive, but decreasing organizational dependence on you as a manger actually makes you more – not less – indispensable to your employer.

So delegate that broken dishwasher problem to a staff member, get your next most experienced team member to host that large group, close your door and get to work on those budgets! Why not make your resolution to spend time on the important – not urgent – things?