Making Decisions Like Ike: The Difference Between Urgent & Important

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Have you ever gotten a phone call from a business partner or co-worker saying that they have an urgent problem, only to realize that it could have waited? Have you ever found yourself working all day, but struggle to articulate what you really accomplished? If so, then you or someone in your life might have trouble differentiating between what’s urgent, and what’s important. This might seem like a matter of semantics, but while these two terms are often used interchangeably, they mean different things with regard to when and why a task must be completed. There are only so many hours in a day, and understanding these terms will help you be able to better prioritize your to-do list.

When something is Urgent, it requires our immediate attention, having a specific date or deadline to complete the task at hand. In comparison, when something is Important, it is somehow contributing to our overall goals and values. While there are tasks that can be both, in practice, this is rarely the case. As Dwight Eisenhower once said,

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

The former U.S. President and army general considered the distinction between these two labels so important that he developed his own time management principle, which is popularly known as the Eisenhower Decision Matrix, or the Eisenhower Box. Using this system, you can organize every task you aim to accomplish into four quadrants based on their level of urgency and importance, which helps determine just what needs the most attention.

Eisenhower Decision Matrix

If you’ve been struggling to finish your to-do list, try organizing them into these four categories. Q1 and Q2 tasks are what need to be addressed the most, while Q4 tasks are neither pressing nor important. When determining which tasks full under which category, keep these factors in mind:

  • Q1 Tasks are often your highest priority, so you should do what you can to work on them over a long period when possible, rather than wait until the last minute and have to rush to complete them.
  • Q2 Tasks are the ones you should spend the most time working on. They might not have the urgency of a hard deadline, but these are the tasks that will grow your business and improve your quality of life.
  • Q3 Tasks might not be important to you, but they might be important to someone else. It doesn’t hurt to help others if it isn’t an inconvenience, but if you find yourself bogged down with other people’s requests, don’t be afraid to say “No.”
  • While you shouldn’t spend too much time on Q4 Tasks, you don’t necessarily need to eliminate them entirely. After all, after a hard day’s work, a little television or internet browsing can be a good way to decompress.

Time management can be a challenging task, but if you can effectively assess how important or urgent the tasks you need to complete are, then it becomes easier to plan out your schedule and determine how much time you should dedicate to certain tasks. So if you’re trying to tame your to-do list, just remind yourself to be like Ike!

Mark Buckner

Mark Buckner is a freelance writer and editor from Hammond, Indiana. A recent graduate of Purdue University Northwest, he has edited two books and written on topics ranging from social media to science fiction film. At this time, he is open to other freelance writing and editing opportunities.

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