Systems & Tips

One Simple Question To Tell the Urgent from the Important

You may have heard of Stephen Covey’s quadrants before, as mentioned in First Things First.

Quadrant I activities are urgent and important.
Quadrant II activities are important but not urgent.
Quadrant III activities are urgent but not important.
Quadrant IV activities are not urgent and not important.

Covey’s application of this quadrant system is obvious but still profound: Take care of the Quadrant I activities and then address Quadrant II activities before Quadrant III or Quadrant IV activities.

In other words, resist “the tyranny of the urgent” and instead focus on the important.

This is sound advice, but it’s difficult to implement. The issue is that it’s tough for us to properly classify our tasks into neat quadrants. They don’t come pre-labeled and color-coded for easy filing.

Specifically, the problem is telling the difference between Quadrant I activities and Quadrant III activities. We have difficulties in telling which of our urgent activities are truly important and which ones are just noise and bluster.

There’s rarely a clear line that separates the important from the unimportant. Instead, it’s a sliding scale that leaves us confused and falling back into the tyranny of the urgent.

The Magic Question

In Master Your Workday Now [note: I don’t fully endorse this book and will review it in the near future.], author Michael Linenberger offers up a good test to divide the important from the merely urgent.

Ask yourself: “Would I stay late after work to finish this?”

Would you stay well past your normal work hours – I mean a few hours past – in order to get this done? If the answer is no, is it really important?

It seems a harsh question at first – a little too extreme.

And that’s the point. If we struggle with fighting the onslaught of the urgent, then we need to get ruthless with our thinking. This doesn’t mean that we have to dump all the activities that we wouldn’t stay late to finish, but this is a good metric to help us make sense of a task list where every item is screaming for our attention.

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