Focusing on the important sometimes gets shoved aside to work on what's urgent. This is an issue we're all more all less wrestling with to one degree or another. As in the examples I provided above, while urgent is attended to, something important may go missing.
How do you know, either way? Let's start with definitions.
Urgent – adj.
- Compelling immediate action or attention; pressing.
- Insistent or importunate: the urgent words "Hurry! Hurry!"
- Conveying a sense of pressing importance: an urgent message.
Important – adj.
Strongly affecting the course of events or the nature of things; significant: an important message that must get through; close friends who are important to me.
The first one gives me the idea that hair is on fire, that things could not possibly get done any faster. The second sounds more strategic. Could we add anything else?
Urgent is often a posthaste type of adjective, something that gets attached to a project, action item, piece of correspondence, phone call that says — we have not planned for this contingency, or we failed to plan altogether.
Urgent may be accidental, is time-driven, and imposed by someone else. You know what they say: Your failure in planning does not constitute an emergency on my part.
Important matters. It makes a difference, thus not everything is important. There's no time limit for important, and it is something we decide and drive. Hence when we talk about doing important work, what we're saying is work that matters, that puts us in flow.
Important is planned.
I don't agree, as some say, that urgent tasks have a deadline and important ones don't. Time management is a balancing act, you will probably never be able to push aside urgent for important. You do need to push for important — for yourself and for making a difference.
Let's break it down in manageable chunks.
This is where it starts for many of us.
We think we're superman or something. We keep taking things on when we're already over committed to begin with. Planning is your key tool here. You may not always know haw many waking hours you get in a week, and how much you can get done.
You won't get anything important done unless you plan to put it first. Take your valued projects, scope them out, and commit to a time line for you to get them done. Then hold yourself to it. Commitments are plans that get done.
For example, say you start a blog. How many times a week do you plan to post? What's the content going to be about? This is my Twitter content strategy. This is my overall online participation philosophy.
On weekends, I set aside time for research, interviews, special projects, feature article writing, fine tuning site analytics, speaking proposals, and presentations. I read books at night after posting, and I check my Google Reader in the morning after running while I have my berries and espresso for breakfast.
Maybe you started an exercise regiment. When are you going to do it? Will you go to a gym or join a cycling club? How many miles a day/per week? And so on. Then you record it. I run six miles every week day and seven both days on weekends – with sprints. I do interval training in between.
See how specific the commitment is? Planning is done with goals and you need to have a strategy in place.
My routine is also how I manage energy levels.
Positive energy is the stuff that moves you into important work. You need to learn to manage your own energy level. Because when all is well and all the planets align, you're king of the world. When the world bonces off you and you're under stress, everything falls apart, including your plans.
You also go to a different place. Your attitude worsens, your approach starts to move dangerously close to the urgent zone. And you burn out — physically and emotionally. That's where running on fumes comes from. Unless you consume petrol.
What do you do to get into your zone, to be in flow? I read and learn, run long distance, listen to Italian music, or stop and take a very deep breath from the diaphragm. Situations and places don't have emotion, we contribute to creating that context.
Viktor Frankl wrote: the last of human freedoms — the ability to chose one's attitude in a given set of circumstances.
Which is where enthusiasm comes in. There are days when frankly, you don't really feel like it. Fake it. There was this brilliant skit I used to watch when I was a kid in our small black and white TV.
It was really simple. It was a line (La Linea, created in 1972 by Osvaldo Cavandoli) that animated into a figure in the middle. It had a great relationship with its creator.
For some reason, this guy (to me it was a guy), would think of something and start laughing. The line vibrated from its laughing. It even banged its fist on the line and rolled over from the laughter. It was contagious. We would start laughing, too.
Every skit, something thrown happend to change the situation on the line — a horse, a fish, an interruption in the line itslef, another character would show up, or there would be a bump in the line. It always came out alright. That's how I remember it anyway.
Whenever an obstacle gets thrown your way, remember to muster enthusiasm in overcoming it. Plan to be in a good mood before you really are, and that's where you'll end up.
My office desk is a big L-shaped surface, with plants, books, and usually three computers on it. It serves the dulal purpose of having a big surface to spread papers and to have different applications open in different places.
I schedule when to check each.
I do my content planning around Thursday and Friday for the following week. My monthly goals include the Premium Newsletter, research and intelligence for client reports and papers, etc. I jot down ideas on a notebook to match to days of the week. That's at the top of the page.
Halfway down, I track the interviews I sent out for the series that run here, and those that came for me. Then the talk abstracts, proposals, and presentations get space at the bottom. I track evergreen post ideas elsewhere, the content bucket I dip into when I'm too tired, or energy is low.
If possible, I start drafting a straw man right at the moment I have the idea, to capture where I want it to go. Planning editorial calendar is kind of cool, actually. I leave plenty of room for timely material about developing news, a new trend, and so on.
I track client projects, goals, time lines, budgets, dependencies, and milestones in separate spreadsheets.
This technique will guarantee urgent action on your part. There are people who admit they cannot get engaged unless they know there's a dire need to do so — when their hair is on fire.
While that may work here and there, it gets old quickly because you then start feeling bad for not having done what you committed to doing.
I worked with a CEO who used to say: Paper is like blood, you need to keep it flowing. That's also true of online messages. There's plenty of advice in both cases. Here's what I do. If it can be dealt with in a minute, I do it. If it can be connected elsewhere, that's also a prompt action.
If it requires time, I weigh it against my goals and strategy — does it fit? Is it going to be a time suck with no yield? In the latter case, I forward the opportunity to someone else, delete, or just say no.
Learning to say no is a very useful skill.
Doing good work
When you tinker with a design or Web layout incessantly before you even vetted direction; or when you read up on a program you may not even start.
Making clarity on the business objective is the first step in not getting sucked into distractions that are trivial to your results.
Entrepreneurs value their time, because to them, every moment not spent developing their business is a lost opportunity. Much has been said about the famous: I'd like to pick your brain, request.
When the request is about something important, it's usually taken that way by the requester who will offer to compensate you, and make sure not to waste that precious time.
In any case, if the request doesn't fit your definition of good work, weigh whether it's worth pursuing. Is it going to be a rabbit hole? Are goals clear enough? Can you define a scope of work? It's rather difficult to price something that is a moving target. And there should be an extra fee for urgent.
Price focuses people on value.
Good work is calm, organic, and planned. Good work is important.
How do you tell urgent from important? Where do you spend most of your time? Are you considering your energy level and enthusiasm when undertaking projects? How do you stay on track?
[edited from archives]