What comes first: what's urgent or what's important?

Avoid suffering from a false sense of urgency.
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Is It Really Urgent?

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“What is important is seldom urgent,” Dwight D. Eisenhower is known for saying, “and what is urgent is seldom important.”

It is natural to focus on whatever seems most pressing now and checking an item off the to-do list, without getting to work that is most important in the long term. If you wait to do what’s important until your schedule clears up a little, odds are that it won’t. You will always feel about as busy as you are now, and as your career progresses you may even accumulate more responsibilities. Managing how time is spent is a challenge all leaders face. Determining what is important from what is urgent will help prioritize where time could be spent most effectively.


The way a leader spends his/her time shows other’s what to prioritize. Role modeling effective time use aligned to the most important goals leads to organization wide success.

The Pareto Principle, better known as the 80/20 Rule tells us 20% of actions will lead to 80% of results. In other words, 20% of work tasks accomplishes 80% of our goals. What seems urgent may not align with long-term goals and can be distracting from what really matters.

“People often think that because they are running just as fast as they can, they are urgent, when in fact they are simply anxious. Anxiety is not urgency,” says John Kotter, author of A Sense of Urgency.

According to a 2018 Harvard Business Review study which tracked the time allocation of 27 CEOs over an extended period, the CEOs worked an average of 62.5 hours a week. Yet it still feels like there is never enough time to get everything done and there is always more to do. Leadership is mentally and physically demanding, much time is spent in meetings, dealing with unexpected issues, and finding time for other stakeholders. Leaders also have a need to make time for family, relationships, health personal development, and rest to be successful.

As leaders we can work to identify what 20% of activities align to the long-term goals of the organization and make those the priority.


Drawing a line between what is urgent and what is important may seem simple enough to understand, however we have a desire to avoid the difficult question of do I really need to be doing this? What is the difference between what is urgent and what is important?

  • Urgent Tasks: Demand your attention right now. Examples include daily deadlines, emails from your boss, and full-blown crisis situations.
  • Important Tasks: Contribute to your long-term goals. Examples include organizational goals, advancing your career, staying healthy, long-term planning, and personal development.

What are the most important goals? What specific tasks do you need to focus on to align with those goals? Avoid creating a false sense of urgency around completing tasks that aren’t influencing progress on long-term goals. Align with strategy and goals by focusing on spending the majority of time on important tasks. Proper scheduling in advance can reduce the number of tasks that pop up and seem urgent.


Reference: Nohria, Nitin & Porter, Michael E. (2018) The Leader’s Calendar: How CEOS Manage Time. Harvard Business Review July-August Issue

Using your calendar, keep a careful record of your actions.

At the end of each day track your actions on a four-column table. In the first column, list your meetings, calls and tasks. In the 2nd column list the actions you took that align to your organizational standards. In the third column list what you could have done better in adhering to your mission and values. In column four, note opportunities to hold others accountable.

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