Johoann Von Goethe
I often quote from Steven Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, a classic full of nuggets of wisdom, but I think my biggest takeaway from that book was the concept of the “Urgent vs. the Important.” It goes something like this…
There are basically four different categories in which most of our activity falls (these are illustrated in the graphic following):
- There are those important, urgent tasks (top left, Quadrant 1 ). These are characterized by the fact that they must be attended to immediately. It is that sense of immediacy that makes them ‘urgent,’ not necessarily the impact they will have on your life. So quieting a crying baby, paying a bill that will be past due tomorrow, returning a call from a prospective client all qualify as ‘urgent,’ as does putting out a kitchen fire. All these activities are important in their own ways, too.
- In Quadrant 2 (top right) are those important, but not urgent items. These items are important, especially when looked at in light of who you want to be over the course of your lifetime. However, they do not require immediate attention—in fact, they’re not demanding at all—and thus, they need to be planned for. Otherwise, they are neglected completely. All activities that are congruent with your values are in this category, thus, we could call these the values-based activities. Is family important? Then building relationship with them would fall into this quadrant. Is your work important to you? Then those activities that would make you better at what you do would fall into this quadrant. Basically, any kind of “development” or “building” falls into this quadrant—spiritual, physical, mental, relational, professional, etc.
- Quadrant 3 (bottom left) contains items considered urgent, but not important. As much as possible, items in this quadrant should be minimized or eliminated altogether. Their ‘urgency’ stems mostly from the fact that they are tasks or activities (or people!) we can’t ignore (or at least we feel we can’t ignore them).
- Quadrant 4 (bottom right) represents those “tasks” that are neither important nor urgent. For the most part, these items are worthless, adding no value to life and stealing the place of things that actually are of value. In general, this quadrant is full of time-wasters. As with Quadrant 3 items, this category should be minimized as much as possible.
The values-based activities in Quadrant 2 are tricky for most of us. We know they’re important and have value, but because there is no urgency (demand) attached to them, we put them off till “later” in lieu of all the urgent activities that are demanding a response from us. Unfortunately, there are more demanding activities “later,” as well, and we consequently end up living our lives “putting out fires” rather than building a legacy. In my mind, this would be the epitome of a wasted life—one lived for trivia, for that which is temporal rather than eternal.
I have spent a good part of my adult life learning what is truly important and then learning how to make it a priority in my life. I write about this process quite often in this blog, though I have never quite labeled it in this fashion. Usually, I refer to my important-but-not-urgent activities as my Most Important Things (MITs).1 After years of attention to this subject, I feel that I have achieved a degree of success in rightly prioritizing the important-but-not-urgent activities that sync with my values.
My current area of focus has now shifted to Quadrant 1—moving more and more activities from there into the Quadrant 2, the important-but-not-urgent. I have come to realize that though there are truly “urgent” activities that I have no control over and must respond to in the moment, there are far too many “urgent” tasks that are only urgent because I have procrastinated profusely. For example, the reason a bill must be paid TODAY is because I failed to pay it when there was time to spare and when it was not urgent. The due date slips up on me, and if I don’t pay immediately I will incur late charges and a “late payment” on my credit record (something to be avoided if at all possible). ‘Important’ reports and presentations become ‘urgent’ tasks when I fail to work on them a little here, a little there long before the deadline. By putting them off till the last minute, I create stress for myself (and sometimes for others, too) and steal precious time away from the important-but-not-urgent activities that contribute the most value to my life over the long term. And, by waiting till the task has become urgent, I do less than a stellar job on it because now there is not enough time to do my best.
Wouldn’t it be much easier on the nerves to do a little at a time and have the completed, quality product ready even before it is due? Yes! I want to experience that!
Gretchen Rubin (The Happiness Project) says, “Work is a form of procrastination.” I soooo relate to that statement. It is almost comical how drawn I am to secondary projects—projects that I have ignored for months—when it is time to buckle down and start work on a important task. In fact, if I am not careful, I can mistake cleaning out a closet (instead of working on that important project) for productivity. The truth, though, is that activity and productivity are not the same thing. If I get a clean closet at the expense of a truly important activity, then I have just compromised my values.
Living in Quadrant 2 takes careful forethought, planning, and execution. It will not ‘just happen.’ It is very deliberate. On the one hand, values-based living takes more work, but on the other hand, it produces more peace (among other benefits). It’s a choice between being driven in life by outside forces (like deadlines and demands) or navigating by wise planning and discipline. Which way seems better?
Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. (Ephesians 5:15-16, NIV)
Have you had success in living for the important? Do you have suggestions for overcoming procrastination? I welcome your comments!
1 Admittedly, this process has taken most of my adult life to master. It doesn’t have to be that way. I think that is one of the main reasons I started this blog: to help others master this task quicker than I did.