Prioritizing the important over the urgent

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Poor time managers often focus on what seems urgent rather than what is important. Those tasks that do not seem important or urgent are best left alone. The tasks that are urgent and important will naturally take priority. However, tasks in this category are fewer than we might think. They may include communicating with your highest priority customers, dealing with crises in home or work life, and dealing with those important tasks that weren’t urgent but are now because you haven’t finished them in a timely fashion. Working all the time on urgent and important tasks is stressful and seems like crisis management. Some people claim that they enjoy the buzz of working in this way, others seem to like the sense of martyrdom and machismo of working at this level. In reality, few people do their best work in crisis management mode, and it is not good for anyone’s long term health.

Re-assessing what is urgent

In reality, many things that seem urgent assume a greater importance than they deserve because of their perceived urgency. Emails are a classic case. You may receive 100 emails a day, but how many do you NEED to respond to urgently? Worse, if you respond immediately, you may receive another in response. It is better to allocate a fixed time to answer emails. First, assess which messages are really important. Answer those first. Use any remaining time to answer the rest but stop once you have used up your allocated time. This will leave more time for other tasks that are really important but do not appear urgent.

Re-assessing what is important

Many things which are important are not urgent in the first instance. They only become urgent when you are in danger of not completing them on time. Allowing time in your schedule for these important but not urgent tasks allows you to give them the consideration and time that their priority deserves. It prevents you working constantly in crisis mode reduces stress and increases your chance of doing your best work. The tasks that are likely to be really important are those aligned with your objectives, that you have prioritized because they make the most contribution to your personal bottom line.

The impact of the law of diminishing returns

The law of diminishing returns applies to most tasks: most quality work is done in the early stages of a project. There comes a time when further time gives comparatively little extra benefit. A task that is important is only important until it has been completed to the required level. After that, other incomplete priority tasks should be completed before time is spent polishing work that is already of a satisfactory standard.


Too often, we confuse what is urgent with what is important. We give urgent tasks an undeserved importance. This can lead to too much time working in crisis mode, with consequences for the quality of our work, our stress levels and general health. This can be exacerbated by a tendency to polish tasks beyond the level required. Once an important task has been completed to the required level, further improvements may be satisfying, but should not be prioritized over other important tasks.