“I need this right away! Like yesterday!” If you’ve heard this expression, you’re not alone. Why is it that people leave things to the last minute and then need those things done immediately? Why is business so often a game of hurry up and wait? Why do our coworkers and peers struggle with the difference between ‘urgent’ and ‘important?’
Perhaps the best place to start is at the beginning. In this case, let’s start by defining these two terms for practical purposes.
- Important is something that requires one’s attention and is vital to the project or business at hand.
- Urgent on the other hand is something that has to happen right away to avoid consequences.
Just because something is important does not make it urgent. I repeat, just because something is important does not make it urgent. The confusion stems from that fact that things are rarely urgent if they are not important first, but important things are not always urgent ones.
This may seem like an obvious and straightforward set of definitions but I’m not alone when I suggest that most people still don’t get the difference. The trouble is people like to think their tasks are important even when they may not be. This leads to the potential of unimportant tasks becoming urgent. Urgent and unimportant can be an irritating combination.
To start, you as an individual and as part of a larger group should determine what your common definitions of important are. This will vary from business to business and industry to industry. To make this less challenging try communicating with those you interact with most. If you are incapable of differentiating between nice-to-have with need-to-have, or need-to-have with need-to-have-right-now, ask another member of your team, preferably your boss. Adapting to their style is a safe bet.
So before you rush to your staff, boss or peers with a request take a moment to consider if you need an answer immediately or if you just need an answer. Ask yourself, will an email suffice or do I need to barge into my boss’s lunch meeting and get an answer now? What happens if I don’t get an answer this minute? Will people die? Will our stock price drop? If the answer is no, consider a less aggressive approach.
Understand that your role, whatever it may involve, is designed to free up your team and boss to do other things. If you ask them for input on every detail of your work then they are not free to fulfill their own roles. Rushing to seek answers to questions that are not urgent and arguably unimportant can be counterproductive.
It is helpful in any role or business to prioritize your tasks. Knowing what needs to get done and when can help you manage stress and time. Prioritization may also help you keep things from becoming urgent due to poor planning.