Beyond the Urgent: Reclaiming Time For What Matters

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What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.

Dwight D. Eisenhower, Former U.S. President

Humans are good at prioritizing what’s urgent

In today’s fast-paced world, our days are often dictated by urgent tasks that demand our immediate attention. 

Conveniently, humans are naturally better at prioritizing what’s urgent than non-urgent.

We put out fires. 

We quiet what’s shouting.

We fix what’s broken. 

This is an ancestral strategy that’s helped us survive. However, our environment today is different than that of our ancestors. The fast-paced nature of modernity inherently has “urgency” built in at every corner of our lives. The culture of “move fast and break things” at work and the “hurry-up society” mentality makes prioritizing the non-urgent even more challenging.

When we over-rely on our ability to address the urgent and put out fires, we create problems for our future selves. The once helpful strategy becomes a detriment to our success and well-being in the long run.

Over-prioritizing the urgent can become a detriment in the following ways:

  • Shortsighted – while firefighting can help in the short term, it doesn’t set us up for success in the future or drive long-term change
  • Limited – It becomes less helpful if it’s our only mode of operation, especially as our responsibilities increase
  • Reactive – If we only focus on the urgent, we can forget the critical non-urgent activities that shape our long-term success and well-being 

What’s important but non-urgent

Drawing from Dwight Eisenhower’s decision matrix, which distinguishes tasks by their urgency and importance, what we’re talking about here focuses on the quadrant many of us tend to neglect when things get busy: important but non-urgent tasks, such as:

  • Strategic planning
  • Creating and defining a vision
  • Launching a new endeavor
  • Retirement planning
  • Spending time with loved ones
  • Trust building with a team
  • Physical conditioning
  • Continuous improvement and learning
  • Creativity and innovation
  • Play and rest
  • Engaging in our hobbies

Unless we expand our strategy to include prioritizing the non-urgent but important, we will never have time for what truly matters. 

Benefits of prioritizing non-urgent but important

Prioritizing non-urgent but important activities means focusing on tasks that don’t have a pressing deadline but are crucial for our personal growth, well-being, and long-term goals. 

These endeavors enrich our lives and foster lasting satisfaction. They also allow us to exercise forethought and strategic thinking, and to be the true creators, writers, and directors of our lives. 

We want to prioritize the important but non-urgent so that the important doesn’t become urgent. It’s much more stressful to begin planning for retirement at retirement age, chase missed opportunities, and repair relationships later in life.

While many of us have benefited from our crisis management skills and ability to focus on addressing what’s immediately in front of us, the mindset that got us here won’t get us to the next level.

Unless we expand our strategy to include prioritizing the non-urgent but important, we will never have time for what truly matters. 

Meaningless tasks interrupts your focus but ultimately have little impact on moving the needle on your well-being and goals.

What disrupts our ability to focus on what matters?

The time trap of meaningless tasks

For most, it’s easy to see the non-urgent and unimportant activities, like doom scrolling.

What’s more difficult to negotiate is the urgent but unimportant demands. These interruptions require immediate attention but do not contribute significantly toward achieving well-being or long-term goals. 

I hesitate to provide examples because what’s important to each person is subjective.

For one person, attending a meeting or returning a call can change the trajectory of their quarter; for another, that same meeting or call can be skipped or rescheduled. 

For one person, fixing their social media could launch their career into the stratosphere; for another, any energy spent on social media detracts from their greater cause. 

For one person, cooking for unexpected guests energizes their core; for another, it’s completely draining and won’t allow them to show up as their best selves.  

For this reason, no one but you can identify the tasks that fall into this quadrant. 

What steals your potential

To identify what’s derailing your path to future success, ask yourself:

What interrupts my focus, requires energy, or consumes a part of my day but ultimately has little impact on moving the needle on my well-being and goals? 

The key to managing this quadrant is to delegate, outsource, or remove tasks when possible and to set boundaries to minimize interruptions. Doing so can redirect your focus toward activities that align more closely with your priorities and long-term objectives.

If we don’t actively manage this quadrant and constantly work on the urgent and deprioritize the non-urgent, we feed the cycle of reactively, and putting out fires which can lead to burnout

Sometimes we know what’s good for us yet we still do the opposite. 

Common pitfalls that prevent us from making time for what matters

Sometimes we know what’s good for us yet we still do the opposite. 

This is what I call a mindset or heartset block – when we allow an unhelpful belief or a feeling to get in our way of experiencing well-being and fulfillment. 

A few common blocks that can prevent us from prioritizing what truly matters in the long run are:

  • Lack of Clear Vision & Goals – makes it challenging to identify what’s essential. Without this clarity, it’s easy to get sidetracked by less impactful activities. 
  • The Illusion of Busyness – where being busy is equated with being productive. This mindset can trap us into prioritizing urgency over what matters.
  • Procrastination leads us to delay important tasks that do not have immediate deadlines, opting instead for the instant gratification of completing urgent tasks.
  • Perfectionism- is the fear of not completing goals flawlessly. This mindset can hinder our progress on important goals by prioritizing less important tasks that can be completed without the risk of failure

These distractions and pitfalls rob us of our greatest possibilities. 

Strategies to make time for what matters

When we make time for what matters, we adopt a proactive approach to focus on long-term successes. This can change the trajectory of our lives. 

Where to begin to prioritize what matters:

  • Know what matters create your list of non-urgent but important tasks or objectives at work and in life. Clarifying your list is the first step to knowing what to prioritize.
  • Plan and schedule because these activities are naturally non-urgent, you have the benefit of advanced planning and scheduling to find the most suitable time and block your calendar to protect this time. 
  • Set boundarieshonoring your blocked time is critical in prioritizing what matters. This sometimes requires getting used to saying “no” to what doesn’t support your long-term goals and saying “yes” to things that matter. 

Conclusion

Start small. You don’t need to throw your current system out the window overnight.

Maybe it’s:

  • Blocking 10 minutes before you start your day to ground yourself
  • Scheduling 20 minutes at the end of the work week to reflect and connect the dots
  • Prioritizing the most important items at the start of the day when you’re most energized
  • Dedicating 20 minutes a day to walking or strength training
  • Signing up for a class to develop your hobby
  • Journaling for 10 minutes a day
  • Researching for 30 minutes a week on a topic that you care about
  • Establishing tech-free hours to be fully present with the people you care most about

Whether you’re making time for strategic thinking, personal reflection, relationship building, well-being, or growth – take a small step toward prioritizing what’s most important to you. Start experimenting, and begin with just one thing that matters to you today.