Urgent vs. Important

Deciding what to work on and when to do it is very difficult. It’s often easy to feel like you’re getting a lot done, but really you’re just doing a lot. There’s a difference, and it’s important to understand that difference.

One big trap people often fall into is working on tasks that are urgent. Urgent sounds like the area to focus on. Why not tackle things that are urgent? Urgent things are called urgent for a reason. Urgent tasks need to be done now.

However, what if it just doesn’t need to be done at all? Or what if it’s not actually urgent? Then you’re just wasting time and energy on things that seem urgent but aren’t important. This is an important distinction to make.

At CodeHS, we ran an activity with the team to spark a discussion about urgency vs. importance. We wanted people to identify specific tasks they do that are urgent, tasks they do that are important, and visualize what they are working on in context.

We had everyone on the team go to a whiteboard and draw a graph. The x-axis was importance and the y-axis was urgency.

Draw this graph on paper or a whiteboard and have people fill it in.

Then we had everyone write tasks they have done in the past couple months and graph them in the spot based on how urgent and important that task actually was.

This activity led to some good insights and interesting discussions around what it means to be urgent vs. important and how to split up your time.

Things like slack responses and in-person questions were far to the right (very urgent) but not very high up (not important).

Emails was an interesting point of conversation. People had listed “emails” in each of the quadrants of the graph. Some people considered emails urgent, others not. Some people considered emails important, others not. We had a good discussion around the idea that email itself could have its own urgent vs. important graph where you classify different kinds of emails.

We also had a great conversation around when to use slack vs. when to use email given how people perceive the urgency and importance of different channels of communication.

While it seems obvious that you should try to focus most of your time on things that are both urgent and important, that’s not actually possible. Sometimes things that are important but not urgent need to be done.

Things that fall into that important but not urgent category ranged from training to long-term projects to defining company processes to cleaning up data in sales pipelines. If you’re focused on letting urgency define your to do list, you may never get to these tasks. That’s a problem and can lead to missed opportunities.

What are tasks you do that seem urgent but aren’t important? What tasks that are important are you failing to do because they are never urgent?

CodeHS is a comprehensive teaching platform for helping schools teach computer science. We provide web-based curriculum, teacher tools and resources, and professional development.

Every Monday at CodeHS, we have a 30 minute team activity to help align the team across many different areas. They range from discussing the company mission and values to practicing the elevator pitch to brainstorming product features.

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