Priority Setting: Important vs Urgent

Priority setting is essential if you intend to make the best of your time. And, in order to prioritise effectively, it is essential to understand the difference between important and urgent.

What is the Eisenhower principle?

The distinction between urgency and Importance was popularized by Stephen Covey‘s book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”. Apparently, the distinction is based on the insight of former US President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who said:

I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.Dwight D. Eisenhower

What are “Important” tasks?

Important tasks are the ones that will (to the best of your judgement) result in an outcome that is of value to you.

What are “Urgent” tasks?

Urgent tasks are those that requires immediate attention. For example, a ringing phone, catching a flight or preparing for a meeting tomorrow. They are the the items in our to-do list that shout “Now!”.

Are all urgent tasks also important tasks?

Eisenhower’s insight is that many urgent tasks aren’t really that important. If a phone call goes unanswered, for example, then the caller will probably phone back if they need to. Missing a flight may not be important if there is a later one you could get instead. And missing tomorrow’s meeting won’t be a problem if it isn’t on a subject that interests you.

Of course, some urgent tasks are also important, but the point is that this isn’t always the case. Many tasks that need to be done soon may not really need to be done at all.

What happens when we focus on urgent things?

Unfortunately, it is all too easy to mistake urgent tasks for important ones. The problem with urgent tasks is that they usually put us in a reactive mode, which is typically marked by a defensive, negative, hurried, and narrowly-focused mindset. When in this mode, it is easy to loose sight of the bigger picture. Because they have a close deadline, we feel pressured to get them done quickly, fearful of missing a deadline. As a result, we push other tasks aside so we can concentrate on these more pressing tasks. When we get into this mindset, we easily drop the ball on what is important and focus on the urgent instead.

How do we overcome our tendency to focus on urgency?

The only way to overcome this tendency is to take time out to evaluate our outstanding tasks and to assign them a priority based on both their urgency and importance.

  1. Both urgent and important. The best response to these tasks is to do them immediately. They are your highest priority tasks, the ones that deserve both energy and focus in the short term.
  2. Important, but not urgent. Schedule these tasks for some time in the future, ideally before they become urgent. They are your second highest priority tasks.
  3. Urgent, but not important. These are your third highest priority tasks. If you can delegate them, do so. If not, do them if you can, but don’t worry if you can’t.
  4. Neither urgent nor important. These tasks are a waste of time and energe, and as such they should be eliminated.

How does this look in practice?

Here’s what I do:

  1. I score each item on my to-do list for both urgency and importance.
  2. Each item gets a value between 1 and 5 for importance, where 1 is low and 5 is high.
  3. Similarly, each item gets a value between 1 and 5 for urgency, again 1 is low and 5 is high.
  4. I then multiply these pairs of numbers together to give each item a combined score.
  5. Tasks with the highest scores are my high priority tasks that will need immediate attention.
  6. Tasks with a low score are the low priority tasks that I cross of my task list.

When can I use this?

The great thing about this approach is that it can be used to establish priorities in the short-term planning (what are my priorities for today?), and in over the long-term (what are my priorities for this year?)