In his essay “Tyranny of the Urgent” published in the ’80s, Charles Hummel, author and former head of an inter-denominational Christian campus ministry, discussed how the things we invest most of our energy on and label as “urgent” aren’t necessarily the important ones.
The urgent tasks in our lives may take the form of bits in our to-do lists such as read e-mails, emptying all of our inboxes, check notifications, etc. And the important ones have a more meaningful impact for the long-run like spending time with family and hobbies aligned to your long-term goal.
The urgent is not evil, no. Both are not mutually exclusive, too. The urgent may also be important, and vice versa. But they have to be sorted out so we can gain more control of our time.
Now, here’s a productivity tool named after U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower. (The guy was known to be pretty productive during his time.) Below is the Eisenhower Box, also known as Urgent-Important Matrix, developed by educator and author Stephen Covey.
“I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent,” said the 34th US President. He recognized that long-term priorities can be easily overshadowed by deadline-driven but ephemeral tasks.
It’s not difficult to make nor use this 2×2 decision-making tool. However, it can get difficult distinguishing the urgent and the important. I admit I’m one of those who cherish instant gratification—I love ticking off boxes on my to-do lists that comprise little tasks. But it’s best to place our errands in order and learn to prioritize better.
The matrix has four quadrants where you could list your tasks in:
- Important and urgent – Things listed in this box need to be dealt with ASAP. Because they have deadlines and the cost of missing them is high, they need to be prioritized. They also fulfill our responsibilities and bring us closer to our long-term mission and values.
- Important but not urgent – Tasks in this quadrant are the trickiest to schedule as they don’t have a concrete deadline and are easy to postpone. However, not doing them may have serious repercussions. So you’d have to really set a time to accomplish them.
- Not important or urgent – This one’s easy to distinguish but not easy to cut immediately out of your life as they give instant gratification. An example of a task I’d put in this quadrant is spending more than 30 minutes on social media. Because really, when I think about it, what am I going to do with a life update of a Facebook friend/real-life acquaintance? Tasks in this box are the least of your priority.
- Urgent but not important – Remember that message someone sent you on Facebook that you thought you just had to reply to promptly and made you set aside your “Important and urgent” task for a while? Yeah, that might fall under this. Jocelyn Glei, an author of self-help books on productivity, suggests that think of e-mail as snail mail. “If you got 200+ letters a day, you would never think it was realistic to respond to all of them. Why should e-mail be any different? Your time is limited, and you can only respond to so much.” These tasks may be important to someone else but not to us as they don’t move us towards our goals.
“In the light of eternity, their (the urgent) momentary prominence fades,” wrote Hummel. Although his writing is anchored in a Christian context, it’s applicable of course in daily life, too. Invest in things teeming with eternal value rather than ephemeral ones. Be more aware of the things you do and know where you’re going.
Header image courtesy of Unsplash.com
Writer: YAZHMIN MALAJITO