BUrgent? Or important? Take a moment to look back on what you did today in your role as business owner or CEO. How much time was spent reacting to an urgent issue or crisis someone brought to you, which (according to them) demanded an immediate response? Alternatively, how much time did you spend working on an important project or strategic initiative that would move your company forward?
A business leader’s honest answer might be that he or she used up too much of their precious time putting out fires that, in the long run, have little or no bearing on the company’s strategic goals. The problem is, too many leaders see this as an essential part of their job. They assume that whatever they do during the work-day (and, often, well beyond the work-day) is, in and of itself, “important” because they’re doing it.
But as leadership and management experts from Stephen Covey to former President Dwight D. Eisenhower can attest, there’s a huge difference between “urgent” and “important.” Knowing that difference, and acting on it, can save you a great deal of time.
What constitutes an “urgent” situation? In many cases, urgency involves the phone ringing in your hand or a new text or email message that demands your attention. But after taking that call or responding to that text message, what do you have to show for the time spent? Often, very little of value has resulted from that particular activity.
Of course, “urgent” can also mean attending to tasks with a hard deadline. And the sense of urgency increases the closer you get to the deadline.
“Important” actions, on the other hand, rarely come across as time-sensitive. These activities relate to the company’s well-being and long-term growth—activities that, because they don’t appear urgent, can be put off time and again.
As Entrepreneur notes, important tasks “are those that, once done, will add significant value to your organization.” What have you done today to add value to your business and move things forward?
Get Your Team Involved
Quadrant 2 of Covey’s time-management matrix is a useful guide to what’s “important, but not urgent.” In a past TAB Blog post, we offered this approach to determining what’s of most importance and value to your company:
- Put your important tasks and projects on a spreadsheet.
- Distribute the spreadsheet to your leadership team and ask each of them to prioritize. (Don’t use a simple “rank 1 to 5” approach. Instead, give each executive 100 total votes to allocate across the tasks as they see fit.)
- Collect and tally the results.
With this approach, a handful of priorities will rank significantly higher than the rest. This provides both business leaders and their teams a distinctive set of Quadrant 2 activities to focus on.
By and large, the “urgent” tasks coming across your desk every day can be handled by others on your team. Hard as it may be for some business and entrepreneurs-turned-CEOs, it’s vital to that you delegate these tasks as much as possible. Not only will this result in significant time savings for you, it also helps build confidence in your team and in its problem-solving capabilities. This way, when the next “urgent” crisis arises, they may elect to address it themselves, without pestering you.
Differentiating between “urgent” and “important” may, at times, feel like a subjective process. Generally speaking, however, most business leaders know in their gut that what they’re doing at any given moment falls into one or the other category. Taking steps to focus on what’s genuinely important will prove to be the most beneficial to your organization.
How do you compare to other business leaders when it comes to productivity and time management? View our latest infographic from the TAB Business Pulse Survey on Productivity.
Bill Edmonds is a business consultant and executive coach. He is the Owner of TAB Columbia and Northstar Leadership Solutions, both located in Columbia. SC. Previously he was a Market Director and Executive for Merrill Lynch, with leadership responsibility for most of South Carolina and parts of Georgia. Bill is a graduate of the University of South Carolina. He started his own financial services agency in the mid-1980s, prior to being recruited by Merrill Lynch to be an advisor, and then later for senior leadership roles with the firm.