Important vs Urgent

The intersection of important and urgent has been on my mind lately. One area of interest has been how our tasks fall along these axes — essentially how we manage ourselves and our work. But lately I’ve noticed that we carry importance and urgency forward through our actions, specifically as it relates to our team’s focus. Whether we intend to or not, a simple question or request can quickly become a report’s all-consuming priority.

With respect to managing ourselves, I like to think of everything we do as managers as falling somewhere on this graph.

Important vs Urgent graph. X axis runs from not urgent to very urgent; y axis from not important to super important

Our goal is to be working in quadrants I and II, solidly in important territory. This is easier said than done, due mostly to what I’ll call the urgency trap. Urgency is an external force. Something happens that causes us to suddenly feel as though something must be addressed right now. Maybe it’s a request from our boss, an email from a client, or an idea that abruptly bubbles up into our conscious. Whatever the case, as humans, we’re really good at hijacking our focus (and often our tools get in our way)…

Notifications from social media, messaging, email, and shiny objects compete for our precious attention

Urgent is not the same as important, but some urgent things are important. So the first hurdle we must overcome as managers is learning to quickly assess the importance of urgent requests or tasks as they gain our attention. Our organizations help with this in the form of goals, objectives, and a mission and vision statement, but the task is often left to us to apply these as a focusing mechanism for ourselves and our teams.

Assuming we can do this, hurdle two requires carving out our precious time and attention for items in quadrant II (important but not urgent). This is the realm of deep work and thinking, and I find that these tasks often lose out to items in quadrant I. For me, just being aware they exist (by plotting them on this graph), or sharing them with my boss or a peer, is often enough to catalyze progress.

As to how all this can impact our team, a quick story. A team member, let’s call them Roy, was on deadline working to wrap a big project. There were a few days to go and Roy’s immediate team had that all-hands on deck feel. I was working on a much less pressing task, but I needed some information from Roy, so I sent a request via Slack. I sent this message with what I thought was an implicit understanding that this could be handled on Roy’s timeline — no rush — but lo and behold, not thirty minutes later, I had the information in my inbox. I turned to Roy, thanked him for the info, but was curious as to why he felt the need to respond so quickly. Roy’s answer, “Well, I don’t like to leave people hanging.”

The information I needed was important, but not urgent. Roy’s task was urgent and important. And it was a striking example that as managers, we can easily become walking, talking, notification monsters in the lives of our teams.

Manager saying Hey Roy with a head that looks like a notification icon

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Originally published at Manager Companion.