Many of the time management experts tell us to try and only work on the important stuff. I agree.
Where it starts getting more complicated is trying to figure out what is important. Hobbs, Smith and Covey all write about trying to separate the urgent from the vital. I looked up urgent and important in the dictionary. Urgent can be defined as “calling for immediate action or attention.” Important can be defined as “of great significance or value.”
When I write about urgent vs vital, I’m writing more about those urgent things that distract us from accomplishing things during the times when we are in charge of our schedules, not urgencies like sirens or fires or accidents. Urgencies tend to take us away from our productive work and keep us from re-focusing on the important.
I’m not certain that these two concepts are always related. One of the old urgencies we used to deal with was a ringing telephone. You might be across the room and when it rang you busted your ass and maybe a shin trying to leap over things to get to it in time. Just as you picked up the handset the other party hung up! What a waste! Or you got it answered and it was a wrong number. Again, a complete waste of your time and energy. But why do we rush to answer the phone? I think it is the urgency related to the ringer.
That type of distraction not only takes us away from what we ought to be doing, it also pulls our focus away for some amount of time before we can get back to the task at hand.
Technology has given us a new set of distractions but with technology we have new ways to lessen that sense of urgency. Caller ID, call blocking and voice mail allow us to move the sense of urgency or need for immediate action away from our phones. We also can do the same thing with the variety of dinging and burping notifications on our hand held connections to the world. I’m not sure about you, but the only notifications I allow on my smartphone at the present time are work email and text messages. (I’m not being holier than thou, I still have social media, etc, just few notifications).
But what about getting our focus on those important events and tasks? Sometimes, when we write out our daily task lists, we write down those things that immediately come to mind , only to discover later that those tasks weren’t that important. I think it was the urgency of them that triggered us to write them down.
So, how can I really decide what is important? In my recent post about the book Time Power, I shared the 7 questions that Charles Hobbs recommended you use to identify your most vital priorities for any given day. The questions pull your focus back toward your long term and intermediate goals. He also writes about the strategies you can employ to help your important things become higher priorities and to make the urgent trivialities lower priorities. Now you can actively and purposely procrastinate those trivial matters rather than spend a day dealing with preoccupation and urgencies.
It’s not like doing this is as easy as writing it out. I’ve not starting living in a land of rainbows and prancing unicorns because I know this. Instead, it gives me a place to really focus my planning time to identify what I ought to be working on during my days, weeks or months. Hobbs suggests you memorize the questions referenced above in order to quickly and mentally prioritize your response to urgencies.
Obviously, there are events that are both urgent and vital. You know what those are for you. They might pull you away from something else, but they are not trivial. These events might include things like deadlines for projects, tasks imposed by your boss or spouse or kids, or even system imposed events like emergencies. Hopefully, if you spend time articulating your values and long range goals, you will find that these urgent and important matters fit within that framework so you will still have continuity from the broad goals to the specific daily actions you plan for.
Bottom line – its hard work to focus on the vital and easy to be distracted by urgent trivialities. This is not a magic pill. It takes time to develop the habit of not allowing urgency to control your actions. I’m not there yet, but I’m working on it.