Have you come across anyone who is caught up in something very important and says so, which leaves you wondering what is so important about that task? Most probably you might have even faced such a situation where you are told to complete an important task and you drop everything else to do that while wondering what the importance attached to the project.

I am guilty of having been caught in the urgent versus important trap for many years, before I realized what an amazingly beguiling and addictive behavior this is and most importantly how completely useless and unproductive such an orientation can be.

Let me share this little secret and hope this helps you in your life and more importantly helps you in becoming more effective and successful.

Urgency is an emotion. The online MacMillan dictionary defines it as “the feeling of wanting something very much or wanting it immediately”. It can also be called as a pressure of necessity. But, is it usually a necessity? Urgency in most cases is externally driven and is a state of mind created by demands, pressures, timelines, etc. I am not saying that there is nothing called as urgent or that it is a mirage. When one is choking or someone is experiencing a heart attack, there can be no mistake, remedial measures are urgently required.

However, in most cases, the urgency one experiences or sees another person going through is externally induced and can definitely be handled more effectively if one weren’t responding blindly or in haste.

Importance on the other hand is an underlying fact. Usually it is long term and requires much thought and lot of effort to accomplish an important task or achievement. An obvious example is one’s health. We all know it is important and the bedrock of almost everything we do in life. Yet, the urgency of several external factors tends to make us neglect and ignore this important thing till it becomes a problem and turns into being urgent as well as important.

This brings me to the third dimension, urgent and important. Some things are such and usually require priority attention. Unfortunately most of us are never taught to understand this concept and apply appropriate responses. Therefore, our responses are usually prioritized based on external stimuli and therefore urgent things usually take front seat while some important things tend to get ignored till they either lose their relevance or become urgent and important.

I can go on and on about how this lack of clarity sabotages several facets of a persons life. Suffice to say that the sooner one learns to differentiate between urgent and important and prioritize accordingly, the better their lives would be.

A simple tool to do this is to plot urgency and importance on two sides of a table. One would get four quadrants –

Urgent but not Important
Urgent and Important
Important but not Urgent
Neither Urgent nor Important

Situations in quadrant 1 and 4 can easily distract a person, steal productive time, and end up creating larger problems over a period of time if given undue importance and focus. Unfortunately, this often happens because this is usually externally influenced and often by someone in a position of authority or power. Take a simple example. A student is writing an exam and the invigilator keeps shouting out that only so many minutes are left. This sense of urgency often leads the student to miss out on some important thing in the haste to complete. This happens quite often in most work situations. Over a period of time important things tends to get neglected as everyone keeps tackling urgent tasks and slips into being reactive instead of proactive.

So, next time someone comes up and tell you that something is urgent, pause and think before rushing off into action.