Urgency vs Importance

As I have a vested interest in project management methodologies I will continue with my thoughts about some of the most fundamental aspects of the gentle art of managing tasks.

One of the most common mistakes that I repeatedly have done throughout the years and especially in my early years as a system administrator was this of not differentiating between urgency and importance of the tasks. Now I’m convinced that the importance is much more important (pun intended) and I think I’m much better at identifying projects and tasks importance. In my opinion having only the idea of priority without considering both urgency and importance is flawed and doesn’t work well.

But let’s first take a look at what does the dictionary say about these two words. According to wiktionary important is something that has relevant and crucial value, something that is central or essential. And to quote:

1988, Robert Ferro, Second Son

For this was the most important thing, that when a person felt strongly about an issue in life, it mustn’t be ignored by others; for if it was, everything subsequent to it would turn out badly, even though there should seem to be no direct connection.

So these are the things that lay foundations of what you are doing. The essentials. Things that you may delay but you can’t skip because your undertaking would eventually fail.

And what is urgency? It comes from the Latin urgente (‘pressing’). Urgent is something that require your immediate attention. Something that should be dealt with right away or it may pass away.

But here’s the problem – many urgent tasks which are not really important tend to look like they are important just because they pop up from nowhere and steal your attention. Usually they are quite obvious and you feel pressured to get them done.

And how’d you tell whether a task is important or urgent (it may be both)? This one is harder to tell… but if you look at the definitions given above there are two questions you may ask:

  • what would really happen (in the long run) if I delay or skip this task?
  • does this task move me any closer to my life goals?

For example Steven Covey has defined four quadrants of time management:

Urgent Not Urgent
Important Q1: disasters, crises, deadlines Q2: prevention, planning, recreation
Not Important Q3: interruptions, distractions, popular activities Q4: trivia, busy work, time wasters

Examples for Q1 activities, which are both urgent and important, are fire in the kitchen, crying baby, very important project with approaching deadline.

Q2 activity is to make sure your kitchen is fire code compliant so there’s a smaller chance of catching fire, planning your projects as to avoid deadline crises, improving your skills or making sure you are in top shape by getting enough exercises and quality rest.

Q3 and Q4 should be avoided as much as possible. Q3 contains things like unimportant phone calls, interruptions from colleagues, IM, short term urgent stuff and fixing minor problems around. Q4 is where trivial tasks or things like watching TV lie. It’s ok to spend some time here if it’s part of a planned downtime – time when you’re refreshing yourself but try to keep it to the minimum.

I personally try to calculate priority as a combination of urgency and importance. I usually use the formula (urgency + importance) / 2 and then may subjectively adjust the result according to my intuition. For example if a task has 100% for urgency but only 30% for importance it’s priority is 65% and then I decide where it stands compared to other tasks that are already on my list and may further increase or decrease it’s priority. Sometimes I may drop it altogether because there are tasks with higher priority and it’s just not possible to complete the new task on time.

In order to evaluate a task’s importance you should have clear goals and values defined but that’s a subject for another blog entry 🙂

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5 Responses to Urgency vs Importance

  1. Antonia says:

    It sounds very logical… However it’s quite complicated when it comes to real life decisions (not theoretical or something). For example, what should be done first: to mantle the new bathroom lights or to read an entertaining article from the Sunday newspaper? I believe, I’m going to spend the morning in a very laid back manner, although it is neither important nor urgent (Q4, hah :)). Furthermore, I am positive that THIS is the right decision. It might sound as if I am wasting time… I don’t give a damn. Do you?

  2. zImage says:

    No, it’s not that complicated 🙂 Let’s see:

    Is mounting the new bathroom lights important? Yes, it is – because naked lights are dangerous in the bathroom. Is it urgent? I don’t think so. Looks like Q2 activity.

    But good rest is also regarded as Q2 activity and Sunday looks like the most appropriate day for taking some rest.

    So here we have two Q2 activities and neither one is really more urgent than the other one. So it’s up to you 🙂

    Actually it’d be good to throw some recreational activities in the mix – like biking in the nearby park or something… aka sharpening the saw 😀

  3. instinct says:

    The most usefull and practical software for planning I have found is EssentialPim Pro Portable.

    _http://www.essentialpim.com/

    It’s just perfect, better than all other alternatives. I have tested it with puppy linux and wine, it works.

  4. zImage says:

    Thanks, I’ll give it a try 🙂

    Unfortunately it’s site is timing out at the moment…

  5. Pingback: Life Pattern » Are You Getting Things Done

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