Importance and Urgency: How to Tell the Difference

What’s the difference between importance and urgency? Is it better to prioritize important tasks over urgent ones?

In Personal Kanban, Jim Benson and Tonianne DeMaria advise prioritizing important tasks that inspire continuous improvement. While these tasks may not be urgent, they’ll benefit you in the long run.

Learn how to tell the difference between what’s important and what’s urgent.

Urgency vs. Importance

The authors derive inspiration from the time management matrix Stephen Covey presents in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey’s matrix helps you differentiate between importance and urgency. Benson and DeMaria take Covey’s categories and make them more flexible to fit personal kanban:

High importanceLow urgency
Continuous improvement tasks
High importanceHigh urgency
Low importanceLow urgency
Rest and leisure
Low importanceHigh urgency
Connection with others

According to the authors, you should prioritize continuous improvement tasks. These tasks include learning and making projects more efficient. They’re not urgent, but they can help you avoid future emergencies. Urgencies, on the other hand, should be few and far between. Don’t get into the habit of putting tasks off until they become urgent.

Rest and leisure include the tasks you want to do. They might not directly contribute to your goals but they give your mind the rest and stimulation it needs to tackle the other quadrants. Finally, connection tasks include, for example, favors people ask of you and social gatherings that you feel obligated to attend. They’re urgent in the sense that they’re happening now, but they won’t necessarily move the needle for your current priorities. However, that event you attend tonight might help you strengthen connections that help you in a future project. 

Develop Time Management Skills to Complement the Tools

Covey’s matrix—and Benson and DeMaria’s remix of it—is useful for understanding what kind of tasks you’re facing, but it doesn’t ensure you will then manage your time effectively to accomplish them. Research shows that three skills are necessary for effective time management, each of which is equally important: 

1. Awareness that your available time is limited—the matrix doesn’t measure the accuracy of your time estimates for tasks, nor does it improve how you allocate your limited time.

2. Arrangement of your time through goal-setting, planning, and scheduling—the matrix is most effective in this category because it helps you prioritize the most important tasks to schedule accordingly.

3. Adaptation of your time while carrying out tasks, particularly when you’re interrupted and have to shift priorities—the matrix potentially improves adaptation by providing a system to gauge priorities on the fly if your work is interrupted with an urgent request.
Importance and Urgency: How to Tell the Difference

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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