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Urgent vs. Important.

Even though these two terms are frequently (mis)used interchangeably, consciously and actively recognizing the difference between them will make you much more productive and help grow your business significantly faster.

Urgent tasks are things that either have to be dealt with immediately or seem so.

You feel they need to be handled now.

Responding to emails, returning phone calls and other day-to-day tasks that pop up fall into this category. Urgent tasks are often about achieving someone else’s goals. (Urgent tasks also often end up having you work in your business, not on it.)

Important tasks, on the other hand, are items that move your business toward your key strategic objectives.  Sometimes these overlap (see below), but very often they don’t.

Usually, urgent tasks end up getting  in the way and push important tasks to a later date.  Ironically, the items that are true priorities for your business get put on the back burner.



Putting Out Fires Gets In The Way of Goals

This is not a side symptom of running a business that only happens occasionally to some business owners.  It’s a core challenge that most (if not all) business owners face at some point–and often, again and again.

The very nature of running a business means that you’re managing relationships with people–clients, partners, employees–who are not all operating on your schedule but nevertheless need to be taken care of and supported.

At the same time, a business must have strategic goals and initiatives (that is, priorities) if it’s going to grow.

These two sets of demands are almost always present and very frequently in tension.

Nobody ever said running a business is easy.

Many famous entrepreneurs and management gurus (and even world leaders and philosophers) have identified this challenge and noted that dealing with it effectively is a key to success.

steve jobs

Focusing is about saying no.

–Steve Jobs

stephen covey

The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.

–Stephen Covey

peter drucker

There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.

–Peter Drucker

bob hawke

The things that are most important don’t always scream the loudest.

–Bob Hawke, former Prime Minister of Australia

gary keller

Success demands singleness of purpose. You need to be doing fewer things for more effect instead of doing more things with side effects.

–Gary Keller


mark zuckerberg

The question I ask myself almost every day is, ‘Am I doing the most important thing I could be doing?

— Mark Zuckerberg

tim ferris

Being busy is a form of laziness — lazy thinking and indiscriminate action.

–Tim Ferris

Making sure that the urgent doesn’t get in the way of the important is a key to business success.  But how do you do it?

Here are six strategies.

1. The Eisenhower Matrix

Dwight Eisenhower knew a little bit about getting goals accomplished.

He was the Supreme Commander of Allied forces in Europe in WWII before he became the 34th President of the United States.


In 1954, he gave a speech to the Second Assembly of the World Council of Churches in which he quoted J. Roscoe Miller, president of Northwester University:

“I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”

This became known as the ‘Eisenhower Principle’ and was how he was said to have managed his time.  It led to the time management tools knows as the ‘Eisenhower Matrix’ or the ‘Eisenhower Box.’

Lifehacker has a good rendition of it:

eisenhower matrix

Eisenhower’s strategy is effective because it’s simple and gives quick clarity for making decisions.  Importance and urgency are used to categorize 4 responses:

  1. Urgent and important–tasks you will do immediately
  2. Important, but not urgent–tasks you will schedule to do later.
  3. Urgent, but not important–tasks you will delegate to someone else.
  4. Neither urgent nor important–tasks that you will eliminate

2. Be Clear About What’s Important

It’s impossible to tell if a task will move you toward your important goals if you haven’t defined those goals.  Set realistic strategic goals at regular intervals.

Make sure monthly or quarterly planning is on your calendar.

3. Make Important Tasks Urgent

The reason urgent tasks have a sense of urgency is because they have a deadline.  That’s why they get the attention.

If you want to have your important goals get the same attention, break them down into specific tasks that have deadlines.  Tread those deadlines with as much respect as you treat the deadlines of others.


4. Don’t Optimize, Eliminate

Notice quadrant for in the Eisenhower box.  You’ve got to eliminate some tasks.  There’s only a limited amount of time in the day.  Some things just don’t deserve any time.

If this is really challenging for you, try eliminating one task from your upcoming week.  It’s empowering and you’ll get better at doing it.

5. Make Employees Give Their Solution

Lots of urgent issues come to you as a business owner because employees have questions or concerns.  Implement a policy that employees must bring a suggested solution when they come with a question or problem.

It will eliminate lazy questions and usually shorten discussions.  It also instills a little pro-activeness in employees.

6. Define Boundaries of Time

Gary Keller, the founder of Keller Williams Real Estate, suggests blocking off hours of time each day that are going to be devoted to your important, strategic goals.

Consider doing this and letting your team know that you expect not to be bothered during this time unless it’s a genuine emergency.  (You might also consider explicitly defining what constitutes an emergency.)

7. Is It Really Urgent?

You never want to be rude to your constituents or seem like you’re ignoring them.  However, lots of requests on your time are not actually urgent.

The client often doesn’t need an immediate response.  Neither does the employee.  It just feels that way.

The tyranny of email is that there’s really no barrier to sending a question or request.

Try not responding immediately to some of those that you currently do.  You’ll often be surprised to discover most requests don’t need or expect immediate answers.

Bonus: Don’t Be a Fire Setter

Your employees have important goals that they need to accomplish as well.  Some of these goals require periods of uninterrupted work.

Just as you use blocked-off time, consider setting blocked off time for your employees.  You might unconsciously be hindering their productivity with unnecessary interruptions.

Finally, remember the words of the German writer Goethe.




Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things that matter least. –Goethe

Focus on the things that matter most.  Being efficient without being effective doesn’t move you forward.