Important vs. Urgent

Important vs. Urgent: 5 Ways to Focus On What Really Matters

One simple fact divides effective and ineffective people: effective people spend the majority of their time working on important rather than urgent things.

Have you ever felt like you spend a lot of time being really busy, but at the end of the day you don’t feel like you’ve really accomplished anything? I’ve felt this way on many occasions.

It’s not that I’ve been lazy or haven’t been productive. I’ve checked my email, responded to everyone, cleaned and organized my desk, filed everything and checked all the social networking sites. Basically I spent a lot of time doing things that kept me very busy and seemed important at the time.

But after finishing all of these tasks, I still had a feeling that I hadn’t really accomplished anything. I didn’t feel any real fulfillment. The reason is while I spent a lot of time working on urgent things, none of them were really important.

A Personal Example

Here’s an example of deciphering the important vs. the urgent. One of the things I’ve been struggling with recently is becoming an early riser. I know that if I wake up earlier, I can have more time to work on important projects. More often than not, though, when I wake up I have the urge to just push the snooze button one more time. It feels so good to go back to sleep for a few more minutes. An hour and a half later I will finally drag myself out of bed knowing that can’t push it any further. The whole time wishing I would have just had the willpower to get myself up when I said I would.

I know that working on my blog or going to the gym would have had more of a long term impact, but I sacrificed the urgency of wanting more sleep for the importance of having a greater impact. I’ve gradually been able to condition myself to wake up earlier over time. Not by using my willpower, but by raising my awareness of what’s more important to me.

The problem wasn’t that I didn’t have the discipline to wake up early, it was that I was conditioned to prioritize urgency over importance. My awareness alone has allowed me to get myself out of bed earlier, not grudgingly (okay maybe a little) but willingly – even cheerfully sometimes. That’s because I know that at the end of the day I’ll feel more fulfilled knowing I spent that time working to get closer to making my goals a reality, rather than getting a few more minutes of sleep.

So how do we raise our awareness of what is truly important? How can we recondition ourselves to have a greater impact? The following are 5 ways I try stay focused on important, rather than simply urgent, tasks each day:

5 Ways to Stay Focused on the Important

1. Set 3 Most Important Tasks (MITs) for the day. Often the best way to find out what the most important tasks are is to narrow down your three most important items for the day. Ask yourself: “If I could only do three things today, what would I feel the most fulfilled in doing?”

2. Focus on providing value. One of the easiest ways for me to discover whether I’m working on important or urgent items is asking myself how much value it will provide myself or others. I know going to the gym, writing articles and spending quality time with my wife will have a more long term impact than sorting files, checking my site stats every 30 minutes and playing Tetris. Ask yourself: “How much value will this provide me, or someone else?”

3. Think long-term. Another great way to find out how important the work you’re doing is, is to focus on how long-term of an impact it will have. Clearing out my inbox will have a much shorter impact than writing an article that people will be able to read for years to come. Going to the gym and eating a healthy breakfast will have a much greater impact than the short term rush of drinking a grande soy latte. Ask yourself: “Will this make a difference a week, month or year from now? Five years?”

4. First things first. I find the best way for me to complete my MITs is to start on them right away in the morning. When I spend my time working on non-important but urgent items I end up getting caught up in trying to put out the next fire. Also, when I try to work on my important tasks later in the day, there’s usually more distractions and more interruptions. Finishing my most important tasks in the beginning of the day ensures that if the afternoon comes and I get bombarded with busy-work, I can still finish the day feeling that I accomplished what I wanted to.

5. Have a clear vision. This goes along with setting your most important tasks, but here we’re thinking about our long-term vision. If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. Creating a vision is about seeing objectively where you’d like to be in the next 5, 10 or 20 years. It also can include what accomplishing those objectives will feel like, what it will look like, sound, smell and taste like. When we have a clear vision of what we want the future to look like, it’s a lot easier to stay on task and not get caught up in answering the next email or voicemail. Think about whether or not the work you’re doing is moving you closer to your vision, or if it won’t make much of a difference tomorrow or next week.

* * *

When we implement vision, priority, importance, thinking long-term, and a focus on providing value, the natural result is we’ll become highly effective. We also fulfill our natural desire to have impacted our lives in a meaningful way. Sometimes just raising our awareness is enough to increase our focus on the important. When we spend the majority of our time doing what’s most important to us, we’ll create a wealth of value for ourselves and others.


Jonathan is the author of the blog, focused on finding Authenticity, Clarity and Balance in all aspects of living. His articles include 10 Ways to Make Time For the Important, Positivity Demystified, and 33 of Life’s Most Powerful Lessons.

Image by StillFrame.

36 Responses to Important vs. Urgent: 5 Ways to Focus On What Really Matters

  1. Hi Jonathan,

    I like the fact that “spending quality time with your wife” gets a mention in your article. Success really does depend on the little things we do everyday that matter in the long term.

    – Geoff

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  4. The First Point talks about the most important thing- Preplanning. Although things may not always go according to plan but it is always beneficial to think about your day ahead the night before, because that helps you to prioritize your tasks in a better manner.

  5. Jonathan says:

    I’m really glad you guys liked this article. I’m sure my wife will appreciate that I mentioned here in here as well.

    If there’s one thing I’ve learned about relationships, it’s that you really can’t apply “GTD” to them, haha. =)

  6. this sounds all too familiar … Stephen Covey anyone?

  7. I agree. Since I read The 4-Hour Work Week, I use my most productive hours in the morning for my writing and learning. I check emails only after this, around lunch time. It’s challenging to change habits, but I feel better and get more things done!

  8. Excellent post, Jonathan. I think reevaluating those things we need to do is the first step. I’ve also found that doing the really important things when I’m most productive – and scheduling something important to be the last thing that I do for the day – helps to both make me really productive rather than appearing productive and reinforces the habit. It so happens that my “First Things” time is in the morning.

    Some of this is discussed in Strange that we both agreed that 3 tasks focused upon is better than the open list of things to do.

    Keep up the great work!

  9. Urgency vs Important

    Sometimes I end up thinking urgent means its important.. and so I get in my own way
    these are great tips – I hate feeling like I did a whole lot of nothing important

    your own personal example is an exact clone of mine lol

    thank you for the thoughtful post jonathan!

  10. Great tips :-) I think #5 is the cornerstone, in many ways; if you don’t have a clear vision of what you’re aiming for, you’ll just be spinning your wheels.

    I agree it’s very easy to have a “busy” day where nothing really important gets done. I find that doing high-energy, high-importance things (like writing the actual blog articles) is best done before I even connect to the net… 😉


  11. I have a list of ALL known tasks that need to be accomplished that day.

    By having a list of what needs to be done, it makes it easier to stay focused. You no longer have to spend time thinking about what to do next. You simply do the next thing on the list and you keep moving until it’s done.

    For me, many of my tasks are repetitive, so I don’t even have to make a new list each day. I simply use the list from the day before. That saves even more time.

    Building good long terms habits (such as waking up earlier) also makes it easier to get things done. When things become habits, we no longer have to think about them. It becomes natural for us to simply do them.

    Stanley F. Bronstein
    Attorney, CPA, Author & Motivational Speaker

  12. Karen Hritz says:

    Your ideas are sound and it is this kind of process that leads to transformational change in our personal effectiveness. The only thing I would add is this: for people who are overwhelmed with the idea of a list of ALL the things that have to be done, I have them focus on the areas that create the most pain or chaos in their lives, and maybe their list only has 3 tasks on it. Then they commit to doing those tasks every day for a week. At the end of the week, we ask, “How’d I do?”, and make plans for their next week. After a few weeks, more and more tasks are added and the ones that have become habits can be removed!

  13. Karen Hritz says:

    I have been a student of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People for almost 20 years and your article would appear to come straight out of Dr. Covey’s work. While I do not have a problem with people spreading the word – I coach people on how to implement the 7 Habits into their lives to become more effective – but let’s give credit where credit is due.

  14. Some of these ideas were definitely inspired by Stephen Covey. I have learned a lot from his work.

    I learned MIT’s from ZenHabits though. I haven’t read all of Stephen’s work, but maybe that’s in there as well?

    The only thing I really took from Covey is First Things First, which he hardly invented. As Stephen himself said, we stand on the shoulders of giants.

    All of my work is the culmination of the efforts of many others as well. =)

  15. This is such a crucial point that we often miss. Ultimately, it’s like Stephen Covey wrote about in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. It’s about doing the right things instead of simply doing things right. I wrote a review on the book recently:

    “Put first things first. This is about finally implementing the action plan and “running the programme” of your life. It’s about planning and executing according to our deepest priorities. Most of us tend to get caught up putting out fires. We’re so distracted by all the urgent crises that we rarely make time for what’s really important.

    “While it may be tough, changing is not impossible. It requires discipline and personal management to become focused on priorities. Learn to say no to what is not important and learn to delegate non-essential tasks when someone else can help you out. Living life based on what is urgent instead of what is important will ultimately lead to disappointment and failure. Nobody wants that.”

    Great article!

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  17. Simon says:

    I use the important vs urgent test a lot these days to ensure that I’m focused on the things that matter most to me. I also use the zenhabits hack of defining three MITs that I work to get done first each day. It’s a powerful motivator.


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  19. Good stuff. My problem, however, is that I’ve got far too many important to do items that are also very urgent. I like this post, and Steven Covey also has some great things to say on the matter. Thanks for sharing Jonathan.


  20. Jonathan,

    I like your last point on having clear vision. I believe that even if you work on a task that may not be fulfilling in its outcome at the end of that day, if that task takes you to progress towards achieving your long term goal then it is an important task.


  21. Maryann says:

    great tips in your post…I liked them so much I included you on my post that will appear mid week


  22. SaiF says:

    Hey Jonathan,

    Great post! All these steps are very easy to do but are very easy not to do too!

    I think everyone should implement these simple steps because they’ve helped me out a lot!

    Thanks Jonathan!

    To CANI,

    The World’s First Teen
    Personal Development Video Blogger

  23. Jennifer says:

    Jonathon, Excellent article! I like how you made it so simple and straightforward – things we can implement right now! The value question is so important!

    What I have found that helps me is to take 15-60 minutes each morning to look over my list of priorities and goals and make a to do list for the day. It really helps keep me focused. I’m reminded of my long term and intermediate goals. Those then turn into action steps that I can take TODAY to reach them. By looking at my priorities however, I’m reminded that family for instance is more important than anything I can do on the computer or work wise.

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  26. Ishani Mitra says:

    Deciding on what really is important is the key to increased productivity. A good idea is to focus on realtively important issues and delegate the trivial functions by way of outsourcing, rather than multitasking.

  27. Dan says:


  28. DC_girl says:

    I appreciate you sharing this – I’ve been toying with a few of prioritization strategies I’ve found & yours is – to me – the most logical and easy to incorporate into my life. And it teaches to focus on what’s important in life – I love it! You have taken a few different ideas and molded them into your own, seemingly based on trial, error … and a bunch of common sense. BTW – I was interested to learn that Covey actually came up with his theories by building on those of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s: “Most things which are urgent are not important, and most things which are important are not urgent.”

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  31. Vinayak Koli says:

    The message is simple and clear. These are very useful tips to day to day life
    -Vinayak Koli

  32. John says:

    Who said, “That which is urgent is rarely important, and that which is important is rarely urgent.” or words to that effect? In my long teaching career I have witnessed many urgent movements which have long since faded into oblivion. An example was the “Quality Assurance” movement that swept through our schools. Actually what happened was that quality assurance became a slogan and each school was required to regularly submit to a quality assurance review conducted by a couple of senior staff members from different schools. Each review was conducted in an atmosphere of urgency because of the imposed time constraints. I say “slogan” because the movement was not informed by the philosophy of inbuilt quality which takes a long time to develop throughout an organisation, nor by anything written by anyone working in the field of Total Quality Management, such as Deming, Glasser, or Mamary, but by the philosophy behind the long since discarded inspectorial system, which was deprecated in the writings of Deming and Mamary. Ultimately there was no quality assurance and the movement disappeared as quickly as it arose. I have also seen the mass testing movement come and go and come again. These things appear to come in cycles.

    What has been lost over the years is the concept of “true north” as a guiding principle capable of helping to distinguish between the important and the merely urgent. Nowadays we have no concept of “true north”. What is right and true is a matter for each individual to decide. Therefore we have nothing which is absolute upon which to pin anything. We have no reference point. Consequently we are continually dealing with details, requiring endless legislation and regulation together with an ever expanding bureaucracy to deal with it all. The result is that the truly important is crowded out by the urgent and we all run faster and faster as a mouse in a treadmill, ending up going nowhere.

  33. Me says:

    Wow, excellent work! I too have a hard time getting out of bed in the morning, hadn’t thought about it in the framework of urgency vs importance, very interesting correlation.

  34. chetan says:

    Thanks for much needed article for me :)

  35. Rick Jackson says:

    Came across a to-do tool that seems to use these principles Early release it looks like

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