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Are you like many of us? Do you find that your days constantly get hijacked by urgent tasks, so that you rarely feel in control of your diary – much less the events around you?
If you are President of the United States, that must be a big problem. Even when news cycles were longer and the only social media that mattered were the personal columns in the newspapers.
It's certainly what President Eisenhower found, and the following quote is attributed to him:
'Most things which are urgent are not important, and things which are important are not urgent.'
Stephen Covey picked up on this idea and put it at the core of one of his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, in his best-selling book of the same name.
Put First Things First
Putting first things first was Covey's third habit. And it's all about having the discipline to prioritise what is important over what is merely urgent. Covey presents the Eisenhower Matrix, identifying the kinds of activities that fall into each of its four quadrants.
Important and urgent activities include crises and deadline-driven projects
Important but not urgent activities are strategic tasks like planning, self-care, seizing opportunities, and building relationships
Not important but urgent activities include interruptions and a lot of your meetings
Not important and not urgent activities include time wasters and trivia
Covey concludes that a focus on the Important but Not Urgent activities in his Quadrant II leads to balance, control and vision.
Finding what is important and putting that first is part of Covey's formula.
Important and urgent activities need your attention quickly. But they also need high-quality attention. Schedule the first opportunity to attend to them properly.
Important but not urgent activities are where the gold is. Here's where you invest your effort for big future returns. So schedule big chunks of your most productive time to give these tasks the attention they deserve. This will help you get ahead of crises and feel in control of your life. Better yet, doing the important but not urgent tasks well will create the improvements in our work and your life that you want.
Not important but urgent activities may not be important enough to worry about. So, ask yourself if delaying them until they are time-expired will have any genuinely adverse consequences. But, if you do need to do them, give them the least attention that you can, consistent with what little importance they do have. This may mean outsourcing them to an assistant or junior colleague, or batching them up and doing them as quickly as you can.
Not important and not urgent activities are simply a waste of your valuable time. Release yourself from the mental shackles of these tasks by deleting them from your To Do list now. Done. [Note: if they turn out to be more urgent or more important than your assessment suggests, then they will come back onto your radar.]
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