Perspectives, Part 2: Important vs Urgent
I have a confession to make: I don’t have enough time.
I start each day with great intentions. I have a solid plan and a to-do list. I’m full of energy and I am highly motivated to buzz through that list and cross items off. But then the phone rings, and someone has an urgent request that must be addressed – right now. I check my email and discover an incoming message that demands an immediate response. I look at the paperwork that’s been piling up on my desk – I really should sort and file it. Oh yeah . . . I’d better check Facebook, because there might be something happening in the world that I’m missing out on – it’ll just take a minute. Before I know it, the to-do list goes by the wayside, I spend the rest of the day putting out brush fires and trying to catch up, and my motivation turns to mush.
Admit it, you know what I’m talking about. We’ve all been there. We all need more time in our day.
American industrialist and billionaire John D. Rockefeller was once asked, “How much money is enough money?” He replied, “Just a little bit more.” In the same way, no matter how much time we have at our disposal, if asked “how much time is enough time?” we are likely to respond by saying, “Just a little bit more.” If only we could add a few more hours to each day . . . THEN we’d have the time to get everything done, right?
Well, I have news for you. There are only 24 hours in a day; and from what I can tell, that is not likely to change anytime soon. So what do we do? Ultimately, the problem is not time – it’s priorities. We struggle to separate the urgent – those things that jump out from behind the bushes and grab us throughout the day, from the important – things that help us achieve our goals and find fulfillment. Can urgent things also be important? Absolutely, and some are. But all too often we get caught up in issues and interruptions that bear no fruit and find our attention drawn to things that are urgent but not important; or worse yet, distracted by time-wasters that are neither urgent or important.
Something has to change.
As a starting point, let’s categorize some of the things we typically encounter and consider strategies to overcome the trivial so we can focus on the meaningful.
Urgent & Important
“Must do” items that will have immediate consequences if you don’t address them now.
Customer service issues
Medical or other emergencies
Manage items that fall under this category. Don’t procrastinate. Deadlines that appear to be far off have a way of sneaking up. Start early and stay on track. Some important things become urgent because we don’t plan, don’t focus or simply don’t pay attention until a deadline is upon us. Allow sufficient time to meet deadlines and include margins in your plans for unexpected delays and disruptions. Don’t fill up every space on your calendar. Anticipate that the unexpected will happen and allow time to address genuine crises when they occur.
Urgent & Not Important
These events are not emergencies and not necessarily time critical, but they can suck the time right out of your day if you let them.
Someone else’s minor issues
I had a co-worker who used to send me an email, then immediately come into my office to tell me he had sent the email. I finally called it to his attention and kindly, yet firmly, asked him to stop interrupting me with his verbal email announcements. Being proactive and taking control of unnecessary interruptions up front puts the power back in your hands, but saying no requires discipline and will-power. Try establishing weekly or even daily “do not interrupt” times for yourself and put them on your calendar as you would appointments. Make a pact with co-workers not to interrupt you during those times unless it is a true emergency (you may have to define a “true emergency”). If your system allows, ask a co-worker to cover your calls during that time so customers and key stakeholders can still reach a live person, and offer to reciprocate so your colleague can have dedicated time as well. Set specific times during the day to check and respond to your email, and don’t open it in between. Do not let busy work consume you. Delegate where you can, and minimize unimportant functions. Remember, tasks should be a means to an end, not the end themselves.
Not Important & Not Urgent
These interruptions can be toxic. They serve no constructive purpose, they accomplish nothing of value, and they will ultimately destroy your ability to achieve your goals.
Some phone calls and mail
Petty drama & conflict
Eliminate the unnecessary. Learn to recognize things that have no lasting value but become time and attention traps. Of course we all want and need to have fun, and healthy respite from work can be refreshing and invigorating; but don’t sacrifice true rest and recreation for trivial distractions. Things that fit in this category serve no purpose, other than to waste time. How can you tell if an activity is a time waster? Ask yourself: Does it serve some purpose, or is it just a form of escape with no real fulfillment? If the latter, eliminate it.
Important & Not Urgent
These are life’s real treasures. Items that fall under this category have certain things in common: they tend to be long term, and they impact multiple areas of your life. They have a value that transcends the moment, and they move you toward achieving goals.
Rest & recreation
Whether business or personal, focusing on the important items will bring fulfillment. These are not the items typically accomplished overnight, but things that require commitment, perseverance and vision. Make the activities associated with the things in your life that are truly important priorities by keeping them in front of you. Set incremental goals along the way and celebrate milestones. Focus on solutions, not problems. A couple of years ago, I implemented a monthly “Sabbath Day” away from my office. It is on my calendar, and it is a priority. Instead of coming into the office that day I go to a nearby retreat center, turn off my cell phone, and spend the day reading and meditating. It is not a vacation day, it is a work day in which the urgent is set aside, and I focus on recharging my battery. It is amazing how much that one day a month alleviates stress and helps me regain my focus.
Prioritizing the important leads to fulfillment. Prioritizing the urgent leads to burnout. Applying habits that keep the important ahead of the urgent takes discipline and a desire for what is best. Maintaining those habits can be difficult because we don’t live in a bubble. Outside factors influence our choices and actions.
Next week I’ll share some tools for maintaining control over those external factors in Perspectives, Part 3: Balance and Boundaries