Monday, April 18, 2016

The Lure of the Urgent

There is much written about how to manage your time effectively, about how to get things done.
However, regardless of how much volume you manage to work your way through each day you may still find yourself struggling at the end of the year to get your key objectives met. Your lament, of course, was that it just wasn't possible, there wasn't enough time.

When you are constantly busy, are actively putting out fires, haven't a minute to call your own... the challenge is not that you aren't moving tasks forward and getting things done, but that you might not be getting enough of the 'right' things done. This is the dance between the Urgent and the Important.

The Urgent are the loud tasks, the pushy tasks. These often seem important at the time but, in retrospect, rarely did anything to move your objectives and goals further. In fact, urgent tasks are typically driven by someone else.  These are activities that they have left to the last minute, failed to plan for, or simply overlooked.  They are now 'urgent' because they weren't dealt with sooner. Rarely are they important tasks, their apparent importance driven only by the lack of time remaining to get them done.

Certainly there is the occasional true crisis, something that couldn't have been planned for or foreseen, but the daily urgent activities you face are rarely these. Most urgent activities have only become so due to someone's lack of planning or preparation. 

In contrast though, Important tasks are those that contribute the most to our objectives and that therefore have the greatest long term impact. They are worth our attention because these are the activities that move us forward, whether personally or professionally.  The challenge though is that the Important tasks seldom need to get done today. As a result, they lose ground to the urgent demands placed upon us each day.  We then get caught up in busy work but not in meaningful work or in working on tasks that add value to the organization, our growth and our future.

Keeping busy dealing with urgent items can feel 'important' at the time, but leave us coming up short at year end. This is the biggest source of frustration for people during annual performance reviews. They feel their 'shortfall' was not due to a lack of input but a lack of time. They felt overloaded and, because they feel that they were constantly 'contributing', that they are deserving of reward - the bonus, the recognition, the promotion and are disheartened when these rewards don't arrive.  
The challenge always rests in recognising the difference between 'getting things done' and 'getting the right things done'.  One keeps you busy while the other moves you ahead.
Take a look at your To-do lists for the past week.  As you review each day highlight the tasks you had planned that directly contributed to your key objectives and goals for the year.  Odds are... you had very few, if any.  You spent the week putting out fires, moving 'work' off your desk - but not engaged in work that contributed significantly to moving ahead.  You dealt with the urgent, not the important.

US President Dwight D. Eisenhower had a simple system to ensure that he was being effective as well as efficient.  He did this by managing his Important and Urgent activities.  For this, take a look at your current To-Do list and Categorize each item listed according to the following...

  1. Important and Urgent.  These are your true MUST do items for the day.  However, the fact that they are both important and urgent generally means that you have left these items for the last minute.  Planning ahead a little better, fitting Important items in sooner, avoiding procrastination all could help avoid creating 'urgency' where possible.
  2. Important not Urgent.  Doing these items helps to decrease the number of activities you have in the category above.  Ensuring that you are not avoiding the Important for the Urgent means that you are constantly moving those important projects forward.  Every to-do list should contain a number of these items. The more your day is made up of these items the more effective and efficient you're being and likely the more successful.
  3. Not Important, but Urgent.  These are the items that will tend to consume your time and prevent you from reaching your goals. The more you get caught up in these activities the 'busier' you will be but the less effective in the long run.  A common source of these types of activities are other people, especially those that haven't managed their time effectively and now have deadlines looming, creating a false sense of urgency.  Don't allow their urgency to become your own.  Do what you can, help where you can, but create a deliverable that works for you.
  4. Not Important, not Urgent.  Why are you doing these?  These are activities that are simply distractions.  Minimize, eliminate, ignore or cancel.  The less of these you do the more time you will have for what really matters.

It can be challenging at first to move out of 'firefighting' mode because it can be gratifying - in the short term.  You feel necessary and needed.  It is important not to lose sight of your longer term objectives and goals.  Keeping these items constantly in mind helps you to build plans, schedule activities and take the action steps needed to move them forward.  Start by ensuring that every day contains at least one key action item that contributes substantively to a key objective.  Then make it two, then three.  Soon you will be spending more of your time on getting the right things done, which is the hallmark of successful people.  

We can all be busy.  Successful people are those that make the choices necessary to be busy doing things that count in the long term.

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