Urgent and important? What are the odds...

March 14, 2019

As I spend time with clients and colleagues around the world I see a huge variety of differences between collectives but also some astounding similarities. The key similarity seems to be the feeling that there isn't enough time in the day. In fact I have seen some email signatures saying things like "Wishing for 36 hours today".


I've written on this blog about the need to stop managing time and, instead, start managing energy. That's a progressive process and I hope that many of you are starting to build that muscle. In the meantime there is one fundamental change you can make which will give you back time which can then be more strategically reinvested. And it starts by asking a simple question - is this urgent or important?


Of course sometimes it's both but in my experience that's often the exception rather than the rule. And we have trained ourselves to respond first to those shouting the loudest or with more seniority irrespective of the importance of the task. We don't stop and look squarely in the eye of the demand and assess its true value. On top of that we're listening to our inner voice, that most powerful and influential of all voices that influences us, which is telling us about all sorts of dire consequences if we choose important over urgent.


'That client will fire me if I don't get this done asap.' 

'My boss will kick me off this team if I don't get that task done by 9am.' 

'I'll be failing in my job if I can't get it all done by the end of the day.'


And the list goes on. So here are the two behaviors you need to focus on for greatly improved outcomes - discipline and courage. You need discipline to review each task in terms of its genuine importance and courage to do the right thing.


Here's a story from my own experience. A colleague came to me in a panic saying that we had a major presentation of a 12 month strategic plan for a client due the next day and it wasn't where it needed to be. She asked me if I could pull several colleagues away from their normal work plan for the day to kick the presentation into shape. This would be extremely disruptive and would put several teams into their stress response. 


I had a better idea.


"Call the client and ask for more time" I suggested.


The look that my colleague shot back was one of shock, as if I had asked her to do something truly unthinkable. 


"This client is a stickler for timeliness and we could end up creating a real storm for ourselves if we do that" she replied.


"Well what's more important, that we produce phenomenal work or hit a deadline that may compromise our entire standing with that client?" I asked.


"The latter in this situation" came the reply. "We really don't want to get on the wrong side of the client".


"Well, I still think we should ask for more time. Please make the call and let's see where we end up" I said, and watched as my colleague walked out of the room as if I had sent her on an impossible mission which would only end one way. Badly.


Twenty minutes later she came back to see me. "Well?" I asked, "how did it go?".


"The client agreed to more time. In fact, they asked how much time we needed." 


"What did you ask for?


"A week."


"And what did the client say?"


"Take two. This is really important that we get it right".


Boom! Right there we learned that this was an important task, not an urgent one. And what really frightens me is how few people would go back and ask for more time. We are stymied by the stories we tell ourselves and, with that, compromise a great deal of value we can create for the people with work with and for, by reacting to urgent and not responding to important.


So, discipline and courage. Take a minute to look at your to do list and be disciplined in separating the tasks into two lists - urgent and important. And for those listed as urgent have the courage to challenge the timeline attached to it. You'll find you create time for the important and recalibrate the demands of the urgent to a more manageable timeframe.


Once you get good at this you'll able to solve these issues at source rather than trying to reverse yourself out of a challenging spot. The next time someone asks for something from you, don't ask when they want it by. The default response will almost always be 'as soon as you can', and that's not because they're uncompromising people, it's just that given a choice we'll always pick 'as soon as possible'. Instead, tell them when you'll be able to get to it and use that as trigger for them to help categorize as urgent or important (or both). At least half the time you'll find that your suggested date is perfect for them, even if they have to wait a while. 


And be absolutely clear about something. Suggesting that you'll get to the task at a time when you can give it your full attention, and bring most value to it, is not a weakness in that you can't get it done by lunchtime. Quite the opposite. It's smart, strategic and the signature of an extremely capable individual.


Go for it and let me know how you get on!











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