Let’s say I set your pants on fire. Why? Doesn’t matter, that’s why.
So this is a problem. Worst case, you will get a little too hot, and then… be kind of cold forever. You know, because you are dead.
Best case, you stop, drop and roll like your life depends on it and just get terrible burns. But you would survive, great.
Being set on fire is an urgent problem. You must put out the fire quickly and you will not be doing anything else until you get that problem solved. If you were doing something before you were set ablaze – Like, oh, I don’t know, reading terrible poetry – it will have to wait until you get that fire put out.
Now, suppose you ran a business and were mildly successful. I know, an unrealistic example, but it still works. So you are running your business so good and now you got the moneys. But oh no, here comes your good old Uncle Sam. He wants a cut.
And because you don’t want ole’ Sammy to sic the IRS on you, you want to get all your ducks in a row (bedazzled, naturally). But doing taxes can be complicated, and you may need to spend several days or weeks getting things together.
And, because you are so good and proper, you realized several months in advance that you would need to get your taxes ready. So you know that sometime in the next few months, you need to spend a few weeks on this task. But you don’t need to work on it immediately, either. In fact, you could put it off for two months and still get it done in time.
But if you put it off a little too long and don’t get it done in time, well… you become a chew toy for the IRS. So this work is important.
What’s the point, again?
The point is that some tasks are urgent and some tasks are important. And they get prioritized differently.
Let me give you some real-world examples. A common urgent problem is projectors. I don’t know why, but it seems like nobody knows how to use projectors. 99% of the time either the computer isn’t outputting to the projector or the projector is on the wrong input source.
Naturally, these sorts of problems are discovered the minute an important meeting starts because nobody tests their equipment before they use it. And so you get a call that says go fix the projector, NOW. Or we will throw bagels at you. Or worse.
So you go into the meeting, make extravagant arm movements as you beautifully press a button on a remote, and walk out to the sound of applause. Great work, you fixed the projector. That is why they pay you the big bucks, after all.
Think about it, though. Before you got that call, you were working on a completely different task. But the projector problem completely upended whatever you happened to be working on because it was more urgent. The urgent task has higher priority in your schedule.
If, on your way from your office to the meeting location, somebody came up to you and asked if you could fix their printer problem, what would your answer be? Presumably it would be a form of “Sorry, something is on fire right now, but I can look at it later.” Because the printer problem is less urgent than the projector problem, and therefore lower priority. But the printer problem may still be more urgent than what you were working on before this whole scenario happened, and you might work on that once the projector is fixed, once again not resuming work on the original task.
So things that are more urgent feel more important in the moment. And sometimes things feel more urgent than they actually are, which compounds the problem.
The Squeaky Wheel gets the Grease
Oftentimes somebody will come into my office and say “you know that thing I asked you about a week ago? Is it, like, done yet?” Unfortunately, I hadn’t even began working on the task, so I say “sorry, it isn’t done yet, but I will get right on it.” And I do get right on it… by dropping whatever else I had planned to work on that day.
Why do I do that? Well, because things somebody just asked me to do feel more urgent, even if they don’t have specific deadlines. And conversely, things I don’t hear about for a while I naturally assume are not urgent. Out of sight, out of mind.
And, to clarify for a moment, urgency is not emergency. Not all urgent tasks have to be done right now. It could just as well be “get this done by next week.” When I say a task is urgent, what I mean is its apparent priority is higher than the priority of what you were working on at the time you learn about the urgent task, in such a way that urgent tasks disrupt what you planned to work on. If a task doesn’t upset your scheduled order of tasks, it is not urgent.
So, as I said, when people ask me to look into something, it seems urgent. Or, in some cases, it seems “small” – something that I could get done in less than an hour, for example. It is very tempting to give these tasks high priority so that you can “clear” them quickly rather than adding them to your task list.
But this approach has some fatal problems, and I want to highlight two in particular. First, when you switch tasks like this, you don’t actually finish any tasks. You can still have a list of tasks you need to work on, sure, but people are always going to ask you to do more than you can do in any given period of time.
Your pile of tasks will just keep growing over time, because there will always be things that feel more urgent that come up. And, worse yet, even the things that originally felt urgent will also not get done, because something new (and thus, something that feels more urgent) will come up and become a higher priority than the previous urgent task. Now the previous urgent task doesn’t get done either. And likewise most of the tasks on the todo list don’t get done, ever.
If, instead, you worked on tasks according to a more reasonable schedule – for example, completing work in the order it was started – then you would actually be making progress. The alternative is death by a thousand (time) cuts.
The second point I want to highlight has to do with important tasks. At the start of this article, I defined two types of tasks: those that are urgent, and those that are important. The key takeaway is that urgent tasks can seem like a higher priority than important tasks.
For example, the first important task I mentioned was doing your taxes. This isn’t a particularly urgent task (at least, not when it doesn’t have to be done for a few months). And when you run your own business, you are always be going to put out more urgent fires. You know what will not get done during those several months? Your taxes.
Because the urgent stuff feels more important. But this is a false importance that makes you not get the truly important stuff done. By the time important tasks actually feel urgent – say, doing your taxes a week before the deadline – you probably don’t have enough time to do them properly. Or, you will fail other deadlines that happen at the same time.
Switching your focus to more urgent tasks isn’t free. It literally steals time from more important tasks. Sometimes it feels free, because things that aren’t urgent don’t feel as important, but you have to repay that loan eventually and it has interest.
So in the natural order of things, urgent tasks steal priority – and time – from important tasks. Which means it is increasingly likely that important tasks don’t get done, or don’t get done well.
What can I do about that?
I think just being aware of your scheduling philosophy as a whole is key. It is very easy to get caught up in the tasks that come up day-to-day. But ultimately, you have a job for a reason. You provide some value to an organization that they considered worth paying for. What value is that, though?
I can’t answer that for you. But at the end of the day you have a job because you provide value to stakeholders (ew, fancy corporate-speak). Think about what tasks you can work on that provide true, long-term value. Which of the tasks you are currently working on will matter a month from now? How about a year from now? Your answer to that question is probably what you should give priority to.
This doesn’t mean that you can’t work on urgent things. In fact, you must work on urgent things, and there are always going to be interruptions. Just don’t get lost in the noise of everyday work, and prioritize what is actually important.