We all face the issue of whether we tackle the urgent vs. the important daily.
People often ask me how I manage to produce so much content and to be (seemingly) everywhere, while holding a full time job. I have no life. Seriously, though, let's take a look at definitions and go from here:
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. So 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 prioritize it. Take your valued projects, scope them out, then commit to a time line for you to get them done. Then hold yourself to it. This is how you can prioritize. Commitments are plans that get done.
Early on, I committed to posting fresh business strategy content from a marketing and communications lens every day of the week, but Saturday. See how specific the commitment is? Planning is done with goals and you need to have a strategy in place.
This is an example of my Twitter content strategy, for a while it included giving back with the weekly chat #kaizenblog. This is my overall online participation philosophy. Making clarity with others is helpful. On LinkedIn look for more lengthy and meaty digital transformation pieces — thinking vs. conversation.
Every weekend, 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 in the morning after running while I have my berries and espresso for breakfast. Zen moments.
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 levels. 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 goes south (no disrespect), 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? I read, run long distance, listen to Italian music, stop and take a very deep breath from the diaphragm, and have a happy place I go to in my head in case I'm in a place that is not so happy. Of course, places don't have emotion, we contribute to creating that context.
Here, I'm reminded of something 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're not really feeling 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.
There was something thrown at it every skit, a horse, a fish, the interruption of the line, another character, a bump in the line. It would always come out alright. That's how I remember it anyway.
Whenever an obstacle gets thrown your way, remember to show enthusiasm for overcoming it. Plan to be in a good mood, before you really are.
This is core to planning. How you actually organize your time to get things done, and your space to provide the optimal context for thinking and doing. My office desk is a big L-shaped surface, with plants, books, and usually three computers on it. Having a big surface to spread papers and ideas helps me do important work.
Planning for content happens towards Thursday and Friday for the following week. I have monthly goals — explorations of topics, researching trends, etc. I have a notebook where I jot down my ideas 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 opportunistic material.
When you're losing the battle with energy levels and enthusiasm, you start buying time. This technique will guarantee urgent action on your part. I know people who cannot get engaged unless they know there's a dire need to do so — hair on fire, for example.
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.
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, I pass on, delete, say no. You need to learn to say no.
Doing good and the right work
Knowing when to say no is the beginning of your freedom from commitments you have not made. Make clarity on what you're willing to do and what would only distract you and be trivial to your results. I'm hearing this a lot lately, people asking for a quick minute of your time.
Bill it. If it's that important to them and doesn't fit your definition of right work, weigh whether it's even worth taking it on, for a price. Price focuses people on value, and compensates you for your time. Chances are, it's urgent, too.
Yes, start thinking about the outcomes of your work more. The right kind of work builds confidence and skill. A great job could be okay for a while. Watch for the inflation of great — hyperbole, hype, hyper active.
Last week at Inbound we heard stories from several people who started with a project and found good work that gave them a reason to stick with it. Good work is calm, organic, and planned. Good work can become important with enough practice and dedication.
Loving what you do matters for working on what's important. Working on it is one path to developing that love.
Fire away in the questions. What keeps you motivated? How do you stay on track?
Valeria is an experienced listener. She designs service and product experiences to help businesses rediscover the value of promises and its effect on relationships and culture. She is also frequent speaker at conferences and companies on a variety of topics. Book her to speak here.