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How to prioritise ‘important’ when you’re overloaded with ‘urgent’

It’s Monday morning, 8am, and you’ve arrived at work a little on the early side. You know your ‘to-do’ list is already crushingly long, and so you spend your first quiet hour highlighting what needs to be completed this week. The rest will get bumped until it becomes pressing as well.

Sound familiar? Although reluctant to admit it, many managers report they spend more time fighting fires than forward planning. A recent Industry Week article identifies that front-line managerial staff especially, spend most of their time solving immediate problems with temporary solutions. But this is a false economy. If you focus on solving underlying problems permanently, you have more space for forward planning and ingenuity.

Two kinds of problems

In 1954, former U.S. President Eisenhower gave a speech in which he said, ‘I have two kinds of problems: the urgent, and the important.’ Known today as the Eisenhower Principle, he conveyed the idea that you must spend time on the important to reduce the urgent and improve the quality of your output.

First, you have to know the difference between the two. An urgent problem is usually a piece of work for someone else to help achieve their goals. An important problem is usually related to our own goals. The result is that you can make a list of four types of problem:

  • Urgent and important
  • Important not urgent
  • Urgent not important
  • Neither important nor urgent


Change your management style

Problems that are both urgent and important are either the result of unforeseen circumstances, which you will never have control over, or poor planning. Workplace activity usually focusses on short term productivity – what needs to be done today, which creates urgent and important problems. But managers who are better at forward planning can reduce the number of urgent and important things on their to-do list.

Shift the focus of your management demands on to long term performance. Encourage your team to think not just about what needs to happen today and tomorrow, but next month, next week and next quarter. Create long term goals and make space for them and you will see the number of urgent and important tasks drop.

By shifting your management focus to the longer term, you create space for what is important but not urgent. This could include upskilling, stakeholders liaison, or making more time for team wellbeing. All of these activities will reduce stress and increase productivity.

Learn to say no

What this change in management style may do is not remove the urgent, but eliminate the not important tasks. Again, these are usually not in your control, but deman ds placed on you by others. The best way to deal with these tasks is to either say no, if you can justify your reasons, or to delegate. Take them off your list completely. The same goes for not important or urgent tasks. If they don’t tick either box then why bother with them at all? Remove ‘busy work’ from your team schedule and redeploy your resources where they can best be utilised, making life smoother and more enjoyable for everyone.


Prioritise your own professional development with our Elevate Programme, and learn more about how to balance what is important against what is urgent.

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