Urgent vs. Important: What’s The Difference?
Around six or eight years old, we become aware of the concept of “time”.
We start to understand seconds, minutes, hours, and our perception of time passing.
Soon after, we begin to develop habits and make decisions on how to use our time.
In our developmental stages, others usually dictate how we should spend our time. However, as we grow into professionals, we have more and more autonomy with our time.
We develop our own personal systems for spending our time–sometimes successfully, sometimes not.
And each of us must decide: how can I use my time most effectively?
In this decision process, we can be tricked into thinking that tasks are important when they’re not. Or we delay the most important items on our task list because they’re often the hardest.
And then we confuse what’s urgent and what’s important.
That’s a crucial distinction that could alter our priorities and to-do lists.
Before moving along, here are how we will define those terms:
Items that demand immediate attention.
Items that affect your long-term goals and strategy
One way to think about what you have to do and what you want to do is to place your tasks in a time management matrix, often known as the Eisenhower Matrix.
Named after the former U.S. President, this method was made popular by Stephen Covey in 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
Here’s what the quadrant looks like with some relevant examples for work:
Quadrant 1: Urgent & Important
These are the things that you must do right away or soon there will be negative consequences. They could be immediate reviews and changes that you need to do before a deadline and may have other time-sensitive implications.
These high-value activities will yield gains for your company that also must be done right away.
Quadrant 1 Urgent & Important Examples:
- Deadline to send in a deposit for an event
- File for the presentation
- An embarrassing error on your social media feed
- Feature testing before launch day
Unless you’re a trauma surgeon or something heroic, this isn’t where most of your work should be.
Quadrant 2: Not Urgent, But Important
Here’s the sweet spot for prioritizing your work.
Your most productive work can happen here. This is what you’re building towards. These projects, tasks and other action items are the bricks that help you reach your long-term initiatives.
These aren’t immediately urgent, but help you build towards success in your goals.
Sometimes these tasks include putting out fires that may not be your responsibility or shouldn’t have happened in the first place.
Quadrant 2 Important/Not Urgent Examples:
- Developing a new habit
- Creating a new strategy
- Working on your quarterly report (before the end of the quarter)
- Planning the budget
- Writing code for the new product feature release
- Creating a prototype and MVP
This is what most of your daily work *should* look like.
If you’re spending way too much time in quadrant one and three with emergencies, then you need to re-think, re-prioritize or find more resources to help you out.
Quadrant 3: Urgent, But Unimportant
This is the most dangerous quadrant.
This is where many of us live and breathe without wanting too.
It’s easy for other people to make demands of our time without realizing what exactly they’re doing.
Their problem is not necessarily your emergency. If they’re trying to find a quick fix or response for something that isn’t moving the business forward, then clear communication is hugely important.
A productivity platform like ClickUp solves this.
Users set different priority levels for tasks, provide time estimates to ensure the assignee knows the scope, send reminder notifications, and relay any important information across the entire team. This helps keep work and expectations in line and enables you to be a more effective team.
We have to be careful, though. Our phones and communication tools are meant to distract us at every second. Notification overload is a real thing.
Push notifications on our phone for social media apps make us think that something is urgent, but it’s really not–especially when it’s just your friend showing what a great time they’re having on vacation.
Maybe. Urgent? No way.
Quadrant 4: Unimportant, Not Urgent
Also known as the procrastination quadrant.
This is the stuff that you find yourself doing, even though it’s unimportant and not urgent. Basically, it’s the stuff you’re doing when you should be working.
This isn’t to say that you should never have a break or recreation or relaxation. But sometimes good things can be elevated to the ultimate thing. And you don’t want these to become that for you.
They could include things like:
- Obsessively checking Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram or other social media
- Checking out your favorite news sites…again
- Shopping online
There are many great productivity apps out on the market today that can help you stay focused. One of my favorites is Forest. For every block of time that you’re productive and don’t touch your phone, a tree grows.
You can even start to build a forest and share your progress with your friends. It’s a game that keeps you off your phone.
Recognizing the Difference between Urgent and Important
Another ding in the email inbox.
More phone calls pouring in.
And you know what that means? It’s decision time.
Yes, each individual email can make or break your next few minutes, next hour, your whole day or even your whole week.
If you decide to open the email (perhaps wait for a designated time!), then you’ll need to make a decision.
Where does this ask/request fit on the Eisenhower Matrix? What’s the urgency and importance related to the task?
Social media and the news cycle make us think that every breaking item is urgent and demands our immediate attention.
We have to filter out the noise to find the true signal.
Urgent tasks create a reaction.
We want to work right away and think of an answer. Yes, some positions require more urgent decision-making than others (hello emergency call operators!). But without the right processes, we’ll be anxious and not process to the best of our ability.
The rush to an answer may cause a bad decision that could negatively hurt productivity in the future–adding more problems to our workload.
Important tasks give us time for strategy. These projects and tasks are what we want to get done, and hope to contribute. These are the tasks for new product specs, offering a new business plan or thinking about the financial goals for the sales team next quarter.
Important tasks are intentional action items that need attention. With that added attention, hopefully, the number of mistakes will be limited.
It is possible for tasks to be urgent and important when a key decision must be made right away. But not every task that is urgent is necessarily important.
The latest email from the sales vendor desperately wants your attention. They are making it seem urgent, but it’s unimportant for you. This is a task to delegate.
Other tasks make themselves urgent. Such as a co-worker complaining about how they need help, immediately. Maybe they can figure it out themselves. Maybe their urgent/important task isn’t your emergency.
The problem with presuming that every task is urgent and important is that you won’t have enough time to strategically think things through.
It is important that you develop a sales strategy. There could even be a little urgency behind it. But if you devote a few days or weeks to carefully outlining the plan, you’ll have fewer mistakes on the back-end. All important tasks can’t be done right away–they’re too important for that and demand extra attention.
But being urgent makes us feel important. The busyness could mask the lack of strategic attention. Huge organizational problems could go unnoticed because of busyness.
You could be missing untapped potential opportunities because you haven’t had the time to think about important strategic shifts.
Think of a firm like Blockbuster or Borders.
They were huge firms–renting movies and selling books. They missed the changing tides.
Could this only be attributed to them missing out on important tasks?
Of course not. But you can see why time spent on strategic work may not always be the most “urgent.”
Which Tasks Go in Each Quadrant?
How do you decide what goes where?
This is very straightforward and goes well in conjunction with the quadrants. They’ll help:
- Decide if it’s urgent, important or both
- Analyze the value: What is the value of this task to your management, organization, and business? What would change and improve if you completed it or pushed it through?
- Consider time: How long will this take you to do? Is this a few minutes, or multiple weeks? Several months? If you create a project plan to tackle larger-scale initiatives, then you’ll finish small tasks with an eye on the big picture.
- Think about cutting: What items on your list or project seem inconsequential? What’s inessential? If tasks or jobs can be combined, then combine them.
- Think about delegating: Is there a task that’s been assigned to you, but it’s really under the purview of another team member? Or is there a colleague who is more qualified or better skilled to take it on? Understanding your limits and what can be done practically is also part of the prioritization process.
How Can You Prioritize Your Time in The Eisenhower / Time Management Matrix?
Not every task has equal weight. And a task you may deem as urgent/important may be considered important/not urgent by someone else.
Yet, you should plan time specifically for those different types of tasks. With the planning done and scheduled, you can bring the right energy and mindset to each one.
Instead of only doing what’s next on your to-do list, carve out time each day or week for the urgent/important and then the important/not urgent.
This takes discipline. For instance, your mornings may be filled with the top-line, urgent and important tasks. Then you can spend a few minutes delegating the other urgent/unimportant tasks.
In the afternoon or later at night, when everything has settled down, you can dig deep on the more strategic work–the important but not urgent.
That leaves the not urgent/unimportant tasks. This has a full range from checking your social media to gazing at next year’s vacation plans. Eventually, they may even gain a foothold in your urgent or important tasks.
Another important consideration: Can you do this in 2 minutes or less?
That rule comes from the Get Things Done methodology by David Allen.
He says if you can handle the task in under two minutes, then you can do it yourself. If not, then delegate or review it later.
How ClickUp Can Help You Prioritize Your Work
ClickUp is a productivity platform that can radically change how you approach your work.
You can organize your projects with Folders and Lists and then assign them to your team to work on or assign to yourself. These features will help you determine the difference between urgent and important not only for yourself but for your whole team.
- Goals: Set goals in ClickUp each day, week, month, quarter–whatever you choose. Attach Key Results to each goal (that usually includes a number!) and then link tasks to those targets as well. You could take your urgent/important or important/not urgent tasks and set what you want to work on each week.
- Priority flags: Flag the tasks your team creates with a level of urgency–such as high, important, normal or low. Once your team reviews or sees a task with a priority flag, they’ll know what to work on next. This works well for tasks that may be due around the same day.
- Due dates/subtasks: Due dates and subtasks help you break up your work even more. You may have several tasks that need to be done around the same time, or maybe one task builds on the other. Setting due dates for important/not urgent work ensures that you will make time for it. Set a specific time of day that a task is due, if necessary. Subtasks also help you delegate work, especially if a task is extremely urgent or needs to be divided into several parts.
- Assigned comments: This unique ClickUp feature brings comments to the top of the workflow. You can assign ideas that pop up in the comments to another person on the team. It then appears in their notifications and box view, prompting the person to take an action.
- Multiple views: ClickUp gives you the option to sort your work with Required Views (such as a list or board) but also with a Calendar and a Gantt chart. We also give you lots of filters to configure how you want your tasks to appear. Sort by the due date, status, assignee and more. ClickUp offers it all.
Conclusion: The Difference Between Urgent and Important Affects Your Time
Thinking about the difference between urgent and important can have a widespread effect on what you achieve with your time. These general time management strategies can give you more focus.
- Be clear about your long-term priorities
- Understand the difference between productive and unproductive.
- Delegate more effectively
- Set boundaries
With these tips in mind, you’ll be prepared to tackle urgent and important problems. Here are more resources in ClickUp to help you prioritize your work: