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We can get in trouble in our lives when we mistake what is important for what is urgent.

What is Important?

What is important has to do with your values. Values are like the guiding map that directs your actions and behaviors. Values have to do with what is most important for you. For example, perhaps you value your relationships with your family and friends. Maybe you value your physical and emotional health, or creating meaningful work. Tasks that are important align with your core values.

What is Urgent?

What is urgent has to do with deadlines. Urgency doesn’t come from our core values, it comes from something external. Often urgency is created by other people in our lives who want something from us.

4 Categories of Tasks

If you consider any task or activity, you can place it into one of four categories, based on its level of importance and urgency:

  1. Important AND urgent. Some tasks are important and urgent. For example, you might value your health and you just received a scary diagnosis that needs attention. This rises to the top of your list immediately, and you get going on addressing it. Tasks that are important and urgent require immediate attention, and most of us are pretty good at getting these things done.
  2. Not important, not urgent. Other tasks are neither important nor urgent. For example, you might need to replace some items in your wardrobe, but it’s not urgent, and keeping up with the latest fashions isn’t that important to you anyways. Tasks that are neither important nor urgent tend to fall by the wayside, but this isn’t too big of a deal, since they don’t align with your key values.
  3. Urgent, not important. These next two categories are a bit trickier. There are a lot of tasks in life that are urgent but not important. For example, your colleague emails you and needs something finished immediately. It isn’t that important of a task, but your colleague has created a sense of urgency by saying it needs to be done RIGHT NOW. Tasks that are urgent but not important tend to rise to the top of our list, but if we are in control of our time, they really shouldn’t. Unimportant tasks should receive less attention and priority than important tasks, irrespective of their urgency.
  4. Important, not urgent. Tasks in this category get put on the back burner when we fail to set boundaries and fall victim to the tyranny of the urgent. If you work tonight instead of playing with your kids, it’s not a big deal. If you do the same thing tomorrow night, it’s not a big deal. If you do the same thing for a week straight, it’s not a big deal. In other words, playing with your kids isn’t urgent. But if you  prioritize your work over your kids for too long, you won’t have a relationship with them. Spending time with your kids is important but not urgent.

If we aren’t careful, we let urgency dictate our schedule, and we fail to prioritize what is important to us. But what can we do? When something is urgent, it certainly feels like we need to prioritize it. How can we focus our time and energy on what is important rather than what is urgent?

3 Ways to Prioritize What is Important

  1. Know what is important to you. Many people struggle because they don’t know what is important to them. In other words, they haven’t done the hard work to identify their core values. If you don’t have a map directing your life, you will be more likely to be swayed by other people’s opinions of what is urgent. Spend the time to figure out what is really important to you.
  2. Own your schedule. When it comes down to it, the schedule is king. If you want to know what a person values, check their planner. What do you spend most of your time doing? What do you want to spend most of your time doing? If you want to focus on what’s important, you need to direct your schedule. Get one of those big weekly planners that has every hour written out. In the evening, spend 10 minutes planning your next day. Schedule in everything, even things like time with your kids, exercise, and leisure time. See if your planner lines up with your core values. Another benefit of scheduling in all your time is you can be honest if someone asks if you have availability. You can check your planner and say, “No, I have an appointment,” even if the appointment is playing in the backyard with your kids.
  3. Train others to respect your schedule. People have a tendency to place their urgency on to us because the task is important to them, and they want it to be important to us. But remember, you own your schedule. It’s okay to have boundaries on your time and enforce them. Sometimes, however, you have to train others to respect your schedule. For example, you might inform your colleagues that to be more productive, you are only going to be checking your email once per day. You will get back to them as soon as possible, but you won’t be able to respond to email at every hour of the day. Hold firm to your boundaries, and people will learn to respect your schedule.

Take Home Point: It’s easy to mix up what is important with what is urgent. Don’t make this mistake in your life. Know what is important to you. Own your schedule. Train others to respect it.

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