How to Get Important Stuff Done When Everything Is Urgent

In the struggle for work-life balance, we often find ourselves trapped between the urgent and the important. The urgent always wins, and the important gets shoved aside. But if we want to take control of our professional and personal lives, we have to turn this around.

I'm right there with you. I urgently need to get that presentation done for tomorrow, answer this phone call from my daughter's school, and deal with a coworker who just stopped by to chat for the fourth time today. But it's also important that I update my résumé, get a little exercise, and start planning that family vacation for this summer.

And we all know what always wins. Urgent trumps important every time, leaving us feeling stressed, depleted, and without a meaningful sense of progress. In other words, we feel out of balance. But there is hope. First, let's revisit this whole notion of urgency and importance.

Cage Match: The Urgent vs. the Important

I was first exposed to the idea of urgency and importance a couple decades ago in Stephen Covey's seminal book, First Things FirstIt's relatively simple: everything we do falls into one of four quadrants:

  1. Urgent and Important: This is non-negotiable stuff, like putting out that fire in your cubicle or taking your next breath. This is the quadrant of REACTION.
  2. Important, but Not Urgent: This is stuff that will probably make life better, but can be put off indefinitely without perceptible consequence, like planning your next three weeks of work in advance or saving for retirement. This is the quadrant of PROACTION.
  3. Urgent, but Not Important: This is stuff that screams for your attention, but doesn't actually matter in the big picture. This includes the instant message that just popped up on your screen and that coworker who keeps interrupting you with office gossip. This is the quadrant of DISTRACTION.
  4. Neither Urgent nor Important: This is stuff that doesn't need your attention, but somehow gets it anyway, like catching up on Facebook notifications or bingeing on Bachelorette episodes. This is the quadrant of TIME-WASTERS. (Sorry for breaking up the -action parallel construction, but there's really no better way to describe what happens in this pernicious quadrant.)

In which quadrant do you spend most of your time? If you're like most of us, quadrants 1 and 3 own you. You spend the majority of your valuable time reacting to multiple urgent matters. This can be a pretty exciting way to live, but it can also be enervating and unsatisfying.

Now, in which quadrant would you like to spend more time? Again, if you're like most of us, you wish you could spend a bit more time planning, strategizing, investing, and just generally increasing your effectiveness in quadrant 2.

And that's very smart of you. When you spend time in quadrant 2, you can actually prevent some stuff from rising up into quadrant 1. In other words, when you plan proactively, you end up having to react to fewer things. In quadrant 2, you can actually start making progress toward a more balanced life.

But how can you slay the dragons of quadrant 2 when you're constantly battling the gnats of quadrant 1? What an excellent question! In the next installment, I'll show you a proven escape from the tyranny of the urgent and into the blissful, effective world of quadrant 2.

In the meantime, you can tackle the low-hanging fruit of work-life balance by answering this simple question: Are there any quadrant 4 activities, at work or at home, that you can just stop doing right now?