Stephen Covey lays out the most elegantly simple approach to time management that I’ve ever seen. He says that you can group all tasks into one of four categories:
- Not Important and Not Urgent
- Not Important and Urgent
- Important and Urgent
- Important and Not Urgent
Urgent tasks are deadline based. They are usually imposed by someone other than you. The sooner the task needs to be completed, the more urgent it is. Importance is independent of urgency. Important tasks are those that you need to complete to achieve your goals.
For me, writing this blog is an important and urgent task. I have committed to posting every day, Monday through Friday. That makes it urgent. Also, this blog is my primary marketing vehicle. That makes it important. Life would be great if every task with which we are faced were this simple.
Not important and not urgent tasks are easy to forgo. If they are neither important, nor urgent, I simply ignore them.
On the other hand, most of us are bombarded with tasks that are not important, but urgent. Often these tasks come from our boss. Just read “Dilbert” for a week to see what I mean. It is difficult to refuse many of these tasks. However, people who manage their time well have the ability to do so.
When I am faced with such a task, I always say, “I was planning on doing this today. I am happy to drop what I was doing and work on your request, but I want you to know that I will have to push back the completing of the other project.” Sometimes, my bosses have said, “That’s fine.” On other occasions, they have instructed me to focus on the urgent task that seems unimportant to me.
Here’s an example. Many years ago, I was working for a large company. I was in the Training and Development Department. I was working on designing the curriculum for a sales manager workshop. My bosses’ boss came to me and said, “We have some important visitors from Japan here today. I would like you to join them for lunch.” I was zoned in on the training design. I didn’t want to spend two and a half hours at lunch with guests. So I told him that I was working on the sales manager curriculum design and asked to be excused from the lunch. He told me that it was important for us to be good hosts and that I should make time for the lunch – so I did. Urgent, but not important won out that day. And the reality of everyday life in most companies is that it often will.
However, rather than bemoan this fact, I’d like to focus on where you get the most bang for your time buck – important, but not urgent tasks.
Here’s an example. Writing books is very important to me. My books help me establish credibility with my current and prospective clients. However, writing a book is a time-consuming activity. If I’m not careful and budget my time well, it is easy to let my book writing slip – because for me writing a book is an important but not urgent task. I need to keep getting my thoughts out there – but I also have a business to run.
If you’ve never done it, when you run a small business, you are faced with a series of important and urgent tasks. But you have to make the time for the important, but not urgent tasks. Because, if you don’t, important but not urgent tasks have a way of becoming urgent – and still important.
Once I finish one book, I immediately begin on another. As a matter of fact, I have four book projects going right now – all are with coauthors, which can take more time than writing a book on my own. Cathy and several of my friends have said, “Give it a break, you just finished one, enjoy it. Don’t get started on another book so soon.” My response is that I want to keep the momentum I’ve gained – and I know that writing a book is an important but not urgent task that is all too easy to put off.
While you have to do important and urgent tasks, and sometimes can’t avoid not important but urgent tasks, your career success will depend on finding the time to focus on the important but not urgent tasks.
The common sense career success coach point here is simple. Successful people follow the career advice in Tweet 24 in Success Tweets: “Focus on your goals several times a day. Spend your valuable time on the things that will help you achieve them.” All work can be divided into one of four categories: Not Important and Not Urgent, Not Important and Urgent, Important and Urgent, Important and Not Urgent. Make time for the important, but not urgent tasks. That’s where you’ll get the most out of your most precious and non-renewable resource – your time. And that’s where you’ll begin achieving your goals. Remember this career advice. Sometimes you’ll be forced into doing not important but urgent tasks. Dispense with them as expeditiously as possible. Make sure you keep up with your important and urgent tasks. But always make time for the important but not urgent tasks.