Time Management Strategies Part 2: Urgent versus Important – Tips for Prioritizing Your Time and Energy at Work

Posted on July 27th, 2012 by True Media

It’s 10am on Monday, and you are already swamped: voicemails and emails, staff meetings and client presentations, conference calls and lunch meetings.  Deadlines loom over your head, not to mention those long-term projects you keep putting off.  Technology continues to make it easier for you to get more done, but the challenge of balancing and prioritizing your time and energy is greater now than it has ever has been.
The most successful people are those that are able to get the most out of the finite hours in a day.  They work harder than most, sure, but they also prioritize their work more intelligently.  According to the Webster dictionary, prioritize means “to arrange in order of relative importance”, but this begs the question… what is really important?  Is it more important for you to answer email in a timely fashion, or meet project deadlines?  Is it more important to spend time mentoring and managing your employees, or thinking strategically and long-term about the success of your company?  Is it more important to do research on a topic within your field, or to spend time with your family after work? To truly prioritize your work on a day-to-day basis, you first need to spend time establishing your primary and long-term goals, and then evaluate how the items on your to-do list, or the projects you are taking on, correspond with those goals.
At The Energy Project, a consulting firm that specializes in optimizing productivity in the workplace, CEO Tony Schwartz makes the distinction between important and urgent work.  According to Schwartz, people often mistake what is urgent (think email, or helping a co-worker with an immediate demand) with what is important.  Activity does not always equal productivity; volume does not always equal value; more does not always equal better.  One way to think about this concept is by dividing your work into the four quadrants in the picture below:

Chart provided by The Energy Project

When you work in the top-right quadrant (Urgent/Important), you are doing the work that you must do and shouldn’t have any trouble prioritizing these functions.  When you work in the top-left quadrant (Urgent/Not Important), you are often doing what Mr. Schwartz calls “avoidance work”, which are the relatively easy and mundane tasks that you convince yourself are important.  This could be making a call, chatting with a co-worker, or cleaning your desk.  But the biggest activity is in this quadrant is email.  The clarion call of the email ping causes a Pavlovian response, which releases dopamine and takes you away from more important tasks.  It is urgent, in that it compels us to take immediate action, but it is so often not the most important thing you can be doing to produce value at any given moment.  This isn’t to suggest that you shouldn’t answer your emails, but you need to be cognizant of how much time and priority you devote to prompt email response.
The bottom-right quadrant, “the work you should do”, as Mr. Schwartz refers to it, is where prioritizing and scheduling matter the most, because it is often the most challenging and time-consuming.  This work could include studying for a certification exam, learning a new skill set or thinking about a long-term business strategy.  It can be open-ended time when you want to think creatively about how to tackle a problem from a different direction, or brainstorming new ideas  to help maximize the potential of an on-going project.  For me, as a digital marketer, this work includes finding new ways to evaluate and optimize pay-per-click campaigns, learning the nuances of analytics and big data management, and implementing an attribution model that gives credit to multiple advertising channels.
Take out a pen and paper right now, and write down the important, but non-urgent things you want to accomplish this week.  Figure out how much time it will take for you to reasonably complete these tasks, and schedule time in your day to work on these.  Because these tasks are often the most difficult, you should schedule them when you are the most mentally fresh; this is often first thing in the morning but is different for everyone.  Put yourself in an environment away from distraction so that you can bring your sharpest mental focus to the process.
You can find more information on this and other related topics at the aforementioned Energy Project website.  Thanks for reading!
Click here to read Part 1 of the Time Management Strategies Series, 4 Ways to Find the Right Balance in Your Digital Life