Important or Urgent – can you prioritise both?

Recently I was asked to help a senior team of dedicated professionals who provided a key advisory role to the board in a major multinational. They wanted to be even more effective as demands on their time increase, but were facing challenges.

It is a familiar story. Their challenges are similar to the challenges many of us are experiencing in our work: too many emails; too many demands; feeling we are serving other people’s agendas rather than their own; constantly working on to-do lists without a bigger plan; reacting to urgent requirements and ultimately feeling that we are not achieving our full potential.

We discussed their frustration and looked at alternative approaches to address these issues. They needed to break the cycle of constantly firefighting in the present and instead, plan for the future. When you are firefighting, it is difficult to focus on what is important, and on activities that are going to achieve the critical results.

Some of the team were aware of Covey’s model but when I explained the relevance to their situation, they immediately grasped the significance of the approach which could lead to the breakthrough they were looking for.

Stephen Covey observed that the most effective people spend more time on certain activities compared to less effective people. He wrote the top-selling book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” but is probably best known for his matrix on how and what we prioritise to be most effective.

Covey Grid

From Stephen R Covey

Many people focus on the activities identified in the two “Urgent” Quadrants (I and III), and not those in the vital Quadrant II. This quadrant contains “Important” activities which have an outcome that leads to the achievement of your goals, whether these are professional or personal.

By contrast, “Urgent” activities demand immediate attention, and are often associated with the achievement of someone else’s goals. Inevitably, there is a tendency for people to focus on activities that are urgent – and in particular the urgent things that are also important.

Stephen Covey’s approach to time management is to create time to focus on important things before they become urgent. Sometimes this just means doing things earlier. The real skill is to plan and commit time to processes that enable you to do things more quickly or easily, or preventative action that avoids crises that end up in Quadrant I.

Examples would be organising your filing so you can find information quickly, and creating a prioritised to-do list (and the discipline to maintain it).

When you spend more time on Quadrant 2 activities, you gain perspective on your vision, your plan, opportunities available to you and the people that you need to invest time in. A revealing exercise is to review your activities over several days and colour-code them according to the Quadrants.

At least 30% of your time should be invested in Quadrant II activities. This means you will need to plan and prepare. Ask yourself some searching questions. When will you set aside time to plan? Do you plan weekly? Do you set review cycles monthly, quarterly and annually? When you consider your crucial relationships, how much time are you dedicating to them? Are you spending time with the right people or have you slipped into a more comfortable zone?

I like this quote from Brendon Burchard.  “Remember, your inbox is nothing but a convenient organizing system for other people’s agendas.”  Set your own agenda each day or the world will do it for you.

Let’s translate those Quadrant 2 priorities into actions we can adopt.

  • Make space in your diary every week for preparing and planning key projects and strategic plans
  • Do not allow the Urgent and Not Important to flood your diary
  • Invest time on developing key stakeholder relationships including planning for those conversations
  • Building relationships to ensure that when crises do occur, you have the necessary trust and credibility with these people to minimise the impact
  • Focus on Important not Urgent
  • Spend time on renewal activity rather than feeling spent at the end of the week

If you want to read more about this, I can highly recommend “First Things First” by Stephen R. Covey (see link below).

Finally, here is a quick self-assessment to help you focus more on Quadrant 2, and spend less time fire-fighting. Ask yourself the following questions.

  • Which are the top 5 relationships that will make the biggest impact for me this year?
  • How much time am I investing in protecting and developing those crucial relationships currently?
  • What do I need to change to achieve the result I truly want?
  • What will I do?
  • Am I spending enough time planning my key priorities rather than just working through a to-do list?
  • Am I spending sufficient time preparing for key stakeholder meetings rather than running from one meeting to the next?
  • Am I taking the time outside of work to engage in things that I enjoy that will re-energise me?

I gave each member of the team we met this week a simple worksheet to help re-prioritise and find time to plan. It has been proven that if you just think you will make changes, you are far less likely to follow through than if you write them down. The most effective way of making yourself deliver on those promises to yourself is to make them public – tell people you what you are going to change and how. If those people are also the people who are filling your day with Quadrant 1 activity, it has the double benefit of warning them of the “new you” as well!

Olwyn Merritt