Blog by Jackie Vouthouris / April 2, 2018

Distinguishing Between Important & Urgent

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This article was written for Software Executive Magazine. Read the article in its original format here.

We all know this trap: Every task on my to-do list felt urgent, I was unable to make much progress on anything truly important, and I ended up playing defense the entire time. This pattern happens to the best of us, but with a little headspace and a framework, we can all work a bit smarter. There is very often a material difference between important tasks and urgent ones, and only in rare cases should something considered a true emergency pop up.


What constitutes important?

Important tasks are the components of big projects that move the company forward. You developed goals and know what needs to be done to achieve these goals. For example, you might be launching a new product or feature based on customers’ feedback and usage patterns. To do this, you know it will take meaningful strategy and some deep work, which means dedicated time and resources. You are on offense when you are working on this project and moving closer toward your goals.

What constitutes urgent?

“Urgent” feels a lot like playing defense. Unforeseen problems arise, bugs in the code are discovered, a key team member gets sick, and on and on it goes. These urgencies are entirely normal, but how you approach them is what can make all the difference. There are a few tactics that help you to dig yourself out of this hole, or ideally, avoid the “urgent” time trap in the first place. For a quick fix, try the “do, dump, delegate” exercise:

  • Make sure your quarterly or annual goals are top of mind. Your true priorities should come through at the end of this exercise if done well.
  • Take a look at your to-do list and get serious about removing any tasks that aren’t worth your team’s time or your own time. If it’s really not important to achieving the team’s goals, cross it off.
  • Figure out what you can delegate to the team.
  • You’ll be left with a much shorter list of important items that really need your attention to get done.

The longer-term solution involves empowering your team to help shoulder the weight:

  • Are there patterns when urgent matters arise?
  • Can you cross-train teammates to cover specific accountabilities that commonly come up? Perhaps some team members already have secondary skill sets that could be utilized. Flexibility in your system, and your team, goes a long way.
  • Many problems can likely be resolved without your help if you give your team time to work through them. Determine whether an urgent matter truly requires your attention. Resist the urge to jump in and save a situation if it is an opportunity to build critical problem-solving skills within your team.

But what about the emergencies?

If you assess a situation before acting, you will be able to distinguish between urgent and emergency and know what actually requires your help. In the rare instances when something is both urgent and important, focus your time and attention to get it right. Once the emergency is resolved, set aside time as soon as possible to dissect the situation. There will be a lot to learn if you value process improvement. For example, do you encounter similar emergencies far too often? If so, it’s likely that it’s time to revisit the underlying processes and procedures. If someone (probably you) always plays the hero, then there is something inherently wrong. The best operations don’t need heroes to consistently come in and save the day. It’s impossible to write error-free code, but it is absolutely possible to plan accordingly for it.

How are you “coding” your work into the categories of important, urgent, or emergency?