Urgency vs. Importance – How I Sort Out Competing Priorities

Urgency and Importance have long been synonymous terms for me; it’s only been in the past several months that I’ve begun to realize that they are actually two distinct concepts.  To this confusion, I attribute much of my difficulty in prioritizing (and, as it turns out, many ADDers have the same issue – this is related to the executive dysfunction in the realm of activation).

The difference, to a degree, lies in nuance; urgency and importance do overlap.  The following true statements illustrate the complexity and interrelation of these two enigmatic concepts:

  • Urgent things can be important.
  • Important things can be urgent.
  • Urgent things aren’t necessarily important.
  • Important things are often not urgent.

My lightbulb moment – the one in which I began to see what prioritization really meant – came with this realization: Urgent items jump into the forefront of the mind, and insist that they be done right now; important items quietly persist, waiting for attention – and, all too often, expire while the mind is preoccupied with urgency.  If I neglect important items in favor of urgent-but-not-important ones, I foster an illusion of productivity that collapses when the important items come due and become urgent.  This is a stressful cycle – and an unnecessary one, at that.

Important tasks are proactive – they are purposeful and rationally executed, have lasting repercussions, are gateways to larger goals, and prevent roadblocks to success.

Urgent tasks are reactive – they often push emotional buttons, demand to be done immediately, and give the illusion of importance, but they often can wait.  Sometimes they can’t, and must be done at once; when this happens, I must be mindful that I do not get sucked into a domino effect of urgent reactive actions.

For me, the “trick” (or lesson) is to distinguish, when an urgent item pops up, if it is more important than what I am or should be doing at that moment.  If it is, I mark my place in the important-but-not-urgent task, attend to the urgent-important one, and return to the previous.  If not, I mark the urgent-but-not-important task for later and resume the important one.  For example, yesterday I got an urgent phone call that interrupted an important in-person conversation; to prioritize, I excused myself from the present conversation, answered the call, set up a time to call the person back, hung up and returned to the previous important discussion.

To recap:

  • Urgent and Important: do it now.
  • Urgent but Not Important: note it and sideline it.
  • Important but Not Urgent: focus on it and make it your top priority. 
  • Not Urgent and Not Important: probably doesn’t need to be done at all.

The above italicized categories are drawn from Stephen R. Covey’s priority matrix, which is featured in his book First Things First.  In this work, Covey also discusses the Urgency Addiction.  He effectively explains the difference between urgency and importance, and describes how Western culture, particularly in the US, encourages placing urgent tasks over important non-urgent ones.  I recommend taking the quiz in this Google Books preview of the chapter – I found it eye-opening.

With that noted, I’m going to wrap up this Important task that Urgently popped into my mind and move onto another Important but Less Urgent agenda!

Questions? Comments? Concerns? Trivia? Leave a comment! 

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