The Difference Between Urgent and Important Tasks

“What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.”
Dwight D. Eisenhower

Do you ever feel like you’re always busy working, yet your list of things to do never seem to get any shorter? Or you feel like you’re getting a lot of things done, but you’re not actually making any progress with your long-term goals? Remember that being busy doesn’t necessarily equate to being productive. You might be struggling with understanding the difference between what’s really important for you and what’s merely urgent. Understanding this difference can make a huge impact on the quality and productivity of both your personal and professional life.

Great time management means being efficient and effective. This means that we must spend our time on things that are important and not just the ones that are urgent. Knowing the difference will help us overcome our natural tendency to focus on urgent, unimportant tasks so that we can make time to do what’s actually essential for our success.

Urgent tasks are those that require immediate attention and are generally associated with achieving someone else’s goals. These are often the tasks we concentrate on first, yet they are usually not important to our long-term goals. For example, many people perceive a phone call as something that is urgent and one that that needs to be answered right away. However, completing this urgent task is not necessarily important and, often times, can be rescheduled to a later time.

Important tasks are those that contribute to our long-term values and goals. These tasks will help us advance our career and our well-being. They don’t have immediate deadlines, but you need to make an effort to complete them in order to achieve your goals.

The Eisenhower Decision Matrix

Stephen Covey, author of the book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, popularized Eisenhower’s Decision Matrix, a helpful and inspiring set of principles to help us avoid wasting value time and energy. Use Eisenhower’s Decision Box to identify the quadrant that your activities fall under so that you can prioritize and manage your time better.

  • Important and Urgent – Q1 consists tasks that are urgent and contribute to fulfilling your long-term goals and missions in life. These are crises and problems, such as having cholesterol problems and you need to get a full body health check, or a term paper deadline for a class you need to pass in order to graduate. Completing these tasks will help you achieve your desired outcomes in life.
  • Important but not Urgent – The tasks in Q2 help you achieve your personal and professional goals, but are not time-sensitive. This includes learning a new skill and strengthening relationships. Beware of this quadrant because, since these activities aren’t pressing for our attention, we typically keep them there forever. For example, how many times have you put off exercising because it’s not urgent? We tell ourselves we’ll get to those things someday after you take care of all this “urgent” (but not important) stuff. What if “someday” never comes? You’ll be delaying your important tasks for a long time! According to Stephen Covey, we should seek to spend most of our time in this second quadrant. Fulfilling these tasks will provide us with lasting happiness, fulfillment, and success. Invest your time in Q2 activities and you can prevent many of the crises and problems of Q1.
  • Not Important but Urgent– Q3 tasks are those that other people want you to do that delay you from achieving your goals and do not contribute to your own desired outcomes. See if you can reschedule or delegate these tasks. For example, if you receive a phone call from your friend during your productive hours, ask if you can call him or her back later. Then, create a time slot, or “office hours” for those you interrupted you, so that you can deal with all those interruptions at once. This will allow you to concentrate on your important tasks for longer. Don’t fall into this quadrant’s trap and spend a lot of time and energy on urgent tasks that are not important. Many people spend time on Q3 tasks, thinking they’re working on Q1 tasks. Q3 tasks are not necessarily bad, but you may not want to constantly please others at the expense of your own happiness.
  • Not Important and not Urgent – Q4 tasks are simply time wasters, and includes watching TV, playing video games, and scrolling through Facebook, Twitter, and Instragram.  Avoid these distractions as much as possible. That’s not to say you have to get rid of all these activities; just don’t let them get in your way of accomplishing your goals. If you have completed what you have set to accomplish for the day, reward yourself by watching your favorite TV show before you sleep and get ready for the next day. Sometimes, knowing that you will have a reward waiting for you helps you to stay motivated throughout the day.

Prioritize and plan!

In summary, invest your time in Q2 activities to eliminate crises of Q1, balance the requests of Q3 with your own needs, and reward yourself with Q4 activities after you have completed the tasks in all the other quadrants.

The secret to effective and efficient time management is prioritize your tasks and activities based on their importance and urgency. Don’t spend your days busy rushing to complete tasks that have no lasting benefit for you and then have no energy to do anything else.

Download this Eisenhower Decision Matrix Worksheet – We have created this free worksheet for you to download and apply to your own life. Make a list of the tasks you spend most of your time and assign them to the appropriate quadrants in the matrix. Doing so can give you an idea of what activities you should be focusing on and what activities you can ignore.