What's Urgent isn't Necessarily Important

Published on 2014-09-03

Source: darcyadelaide @ Flickr
AUTHOR AND TRAINER, STEPHEN R. COVEY might get all the credit, but it was an earlier American, Dwight D. Eisenhower, aka Ike, who first defined that urgent and important were not necessary the same thing. In his own words, Ike said “What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.” Covey agreed, and turned it into a matrix that has been used globally by business professionals – regardless of whether they have read ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’, or not. [quote float=”right”]What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.”[/quote]
So what is the difference between ‘urgent’ and ‘important’?
According to Ike, urgent means that a task requires immediate attention. Urgent matters are those that scream “Now!”, and put managers into a reactive mode. This mode is negative, since it makes these managers appear defensive, narrowly-focused and hurried. In short, these managers look frantic.
Important tasks are tasks that aid in long-term goals. Of course, sometimes important tasks are also urgent, but this isn’t always the case. When managers focus on important matters then they are responsive, appear calm and rational, and are generally ready to accept opportunities. These managers appear disciplined, responsible, and mature.
In which quadrant do you fall?
It’s not difficult to see which quadrant we should aim to focus – quadrant 2. Managers who plan, take precautionary action, and continually evolve their management and leadership skills fit into quadrant 2. These managers are more often than not leaders – members of the organisation that inspire others. They know more people, can reduce conflict through a better understanding of others, and seem to always hit their targets. But for many managers, they are trapped in the cycle of quadrants 1, 3 or 4 with the following consequences:
Quadrant 1: Urgent and Important Tasks
Chaos reigns for these managers, as they jump from one fire to the next, filling their day with short term fixes, and not having time to build towards the long term goals. Sudden deadlines, client complaints, and in the worst cases, catastrophes requiring serious crisis management, fill this quadrant.
The good news is that with planning, reorganisation, and a return to positive habits, many quadrant 1 tasks can be moved into quadrant 2, or eliminated outright. For example, instead of waiting until the last minute to conduct a performance appraisal, this task can be scheduled months in advance. Instead of booking flights a few nights before, and therefore incurring additional costs, policies can be created that encourage savings to be passed onto staff.
While managers will never be able to completely eliminate ‘urgent and important’ tasks, they can reduce them, and thus become more efficient.
Quadrant 3: Urgent and Not Important Tasks
Tasks in this quadrant require our attention now, but don’t help us achieve our goals. Most quadrant 3 tasks are interruptions from others and are unplanned, with many being mobile phone calls. For this reason, many organisations have a ‘phones off’ policy when in meetings and training.
According to Covey, many managers confuse quadrant 1 with 3, thinking that these tasks are urgent and important, since they are helping others. But while these tasks might be important to others, they are not necessary important to the manager, which is why coaching, training and delegating helps eliminate these interruptions all together. After all, if a manager’s team is more capable, they will be less likely to disturb their boss over matters that they are capable of solving. The other skill for managers aiming to reduce the size of this quadrant is to simply say ‘no’ – which isn’t always easy to say, for managers who want to be known as the ‘nice guy’.
Quadrant 4: Not Urgent and Not Important Tasks
Quadrant 4 activities aren’t urgent and aren’t important. These tasks are simply time wasters. Shopping online, posting status updates on social media, calling friends and family during work hours; these are all enjoyable, but do not aid in reaching goals. They are only distractions. Mind you, distractions are important to a work-life balance. [quote float=”right”]Distractions are important to a work-life balance.[/quote]Taking a break for half an hour can clear writer’s block, inspire creative thought, or simply lower blood pressure. So instead of completing eliminating quadrant 4 tasks, managers should control the amount of time this quadrant consumes.
How to apply?
Many managers spend their time in quadrants 1 and 3, but very little on quadrant 2. These managers look busy, but are always complaining that they have no time. Aside form limiting their chances of reaching their goals, they are also limiting their careers.
In a perfect world a manager would only work in quadrant 2. However, the reality is that unexpected problems crop up and therefore working within quadrant 1 is still expected. Whether a manager starts the day focusing on quadrant 1, or waits until they have invested time into quadrant 2, is incidental.  They can do whatever works for them.