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Time Management -- Urgent vs. Important

"It's just been one of those days?I can't seem to get anything done! I've got way too many things on my "To-Do List". Oh the list started out innocently enough as a single handwritten column on one sheet of lined paper; but now it's grown to a three-column table in a spreadsheet software program! I get no satisfaction from checking off each item as I finish it. For each task I complete, at least two more are added. I began my work day at 6:30 AM with grandiose plans of completing a special project before Noon. Now it's 16 hours later (10:30 PM) and I still have not finished the project. My anxiety and frustration are mounting. Tomorrow's list has already been written and it does not include the things left undone from today's list! I don't know if I'm going to make it through the week with all of the demands upon my time and energy. I need help?quickly!

A Juggling Act

I wrote the above entry in my journal several days ago. What a day that was! How about you?been there lately?

Life can be such a juggling act. Like professional jugglers, we try to keep 5 or 6 balls moving through the air at the same time. But unlike professional jugglers, we rarely succeed.

Everyone is so busy these days. Work is performed at a frantic pace and people are in such a hurry. There is an air of impatience and intolerance-a lot of frenetic darting to and fro that is almost out of control. It's very difficult to keep your priorities in line when life is so fast paced. But the negative consequences of so much activity-stress, damaged or broken relationships, poor health---can wreak more havoc than what we think we will gain.

The Urgent

I tried for years to use a paper-based time management system with columns similar to this: "Must Do?Need to Do...Like to Do". I'm sure you've used something like this (maybe even now). The problem I encountered was that I never seemed to get around to doing much in the "Like to Do" column, which was very discouraging. The "Must Do and Need to Do" items consumed all of my time.

So I switched to a simpler paper-based system with the following columns, "Urgent" and "Important". Now, I was sure to spend my time wisely. Unfortunately, I found out that the urgent things monopolized my time and pushed the important things to the back-burner.

Here are three examples of "The Urgent":

  • Pressing or burning imperatives that must be completed immediately.
  • Critical or vital tasks that someone else insists be performed without delay.
  • Unrelenting and persistent routine demands on your time.

The Important

"The Urgent" often masquerades as "The Important". However, not everything we do is important. To identify what's important to you requires that you answer three questions:

  • Will the activity I am about to participate in make a significant and lasting positive impact on others?
  • Is what I am about to do an unselfish act that will bring happiness or joy to others?
  • Do my actions and activities promote balance in my life or are they all-consuming?
  • The Bottom Line

    Identifying "The Important" requires focus-a concentration of energy, effort, and thought. "The Important" is where you should spend most of your time. Now, before you send me screaming emails, I don't mean that you shouldn't address "The Urgent". Instead, consider the following:

    Focus on "The Important"!

    Priority is the key to managing "The Urgent" and focusing on "The Important". Before you leap to complete a task, take a few moments to think about its true priority. Does it need to be done right at this moment, or is there something else on your list that should come first?

    While others may demand that everything on your To-Do List must be done immediately, you and only you can really determine what should be done first, second, third, etc. (It's not possible to do everything at once; priority must be given to each item).

    Today, I've taken a dose of my own medicine and committed to focusing on "The Important". So far, I've accomplished at least one thing that will have a significant and positive impact on others-finishing this article.

    Althea DeBrule, entrepreneur and seasoned human resources executive, has focused for more than 30 years on helping people achieve their career goals. Creator of The Extreme-Career-Makeover? and a founding partner of RADSGroup Organizational Consultants, she is recognized for her bottom line and practical application of career development and management strategies in a way that penetrates hearts and compels action. She speaks and teaches with inspired talent, humor and contagious zeal at management conferences and leadership retreats nationwide, and has been featured in CFO Magazine, Strategy@Work, Human Resource Executive Magazine. Althea is the author of Bosses & Orchards, a compelling and candid book about how to make your work relationship with your boss succeed.

    To discover how you can take your career to a new level, visit

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