Eisenhower’s Urgent versus Important

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“Most things which are urgent are not important,
and most things which are important are not urgent.”

Dwight D Eisenhower

Getting your priorities right

Do you focus on doing the most important things, or are you seduced by the merely urgent. Stephen Covey made the answer to this question one of his “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”.

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Often associated with Covey, the distinction between urgent and important was first drawn by US President Dwight D Eisenhower. It forms the basis of a simple, yet powerful and successful, approach to personal time management.

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First things First

Stephen Covey took Eisenhower’s insight and put it at the core of his third habit: “first things first”. Before looking at what are the first things, let’s look at the four combinations of urgency and importance.

U&I

Urgent and Important

Urgent and Important tasks present us with a powerful driving force in our lives. These are the things we turn our attention to first and, when they mount up, lead us to feel out of control. Examples include: an urgent call from a major client, a printer breakdown when a report is due, or a quotation for a pivotal piece of work. Clearly, there are some people for whom urgency is a powerful motivator, and they use it, either consciously or not, to focus themselves and drive them to achieve.

Urgent but Not Important

Urgent but Not Important tasks are the interruptions and distractions that are important to someone else. If this “stuff” takes over too much of your time, you will end up stressed and miserable, feeling yourself buffeted like a dinghy in a gale.

Not Urgent and Not Important

Not Urgent and Not Important tasks are a waste of time, a displacement activity that displaces valuable effort. These are trivial and ultimately rob you of productive time. Yet we all do it; we read those gift catalogues in Sunday papers and get caught up in pointless gossip.

Not Urgent but Important

Not Urgent but Important tasks are where we get most value. These are the tasks that put in place the groundwork for our future success. Here we address important matters in a measured way, before they become urgent. Prioritise this zone for maximum success and set aside quality time for these activities.

Goal Setting and the Investment Zone

Covey’s “first things first” habit is all about knowing what you want and focusing on getting it. This requires that you set yourself goals and constantly review them to ensure that you really do know what is important. By using active decision making about how to prioritise your time, you can balance out your commitments to the four quadrants, allocating increasing time to the Important but Not Urgent.

This quadrant is sometimes misunderstood; it is not self-indulgent. We easily recognise the value of Urgent and Important, but often Important but Not Urgent addresses the very same tasks – it just does so before they become urgent.

The Bottom Line

Think of it as the “investment zone”; investing in what really matters. That beats the stock market!

Learn More:  There will be more on this in Brilliant Time Management, or, if you cannot wait, this is one of ten models that feature in the Management Models Pocketbook at Chapter 9.

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About Mike Clayton

Mike is an author and speaker, specialising in personal effectiveness, project management and the management of change. When we try to make change work for us, things don't always go as planned: Shift happens! Over the years, Mike has developed personal and professional strategies to anticipate and deal with shift. You can contact Mike at mike@mikeclayton.co.uk
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