Is your to-do list overflowing with tasks? Do you end up rushing from one thing to the next, dealing with whatever's most on your mind at the time - and shoving everything else aside for another day? This can be an effective way to work at times, such as when clearing the decks before vacation, but both your work and your health are likely to suffer if you're constantly in firefighting mode.

So how can you start concentration on what really matters, instead of on what seems most pressing?

The Four Quadrants
There's a useful technique in time-management that involves dividing your tasks into a grid with four quadrants, which are:

  • Urgent and Important (eg. My big report is due in three hours)
  • Important but Not Urgent (eg. I'm delivering a presentation next month)
  • Urgent but Not Important (eg. My library books are due back today)
  • Not Important and Not Urgent (eg. I'm watching YouTube clips)

What Goes Where? 
Generally, it's not too hard to decide where a particular task or activity fits. The key is not to confuse a task's urgency with itsimportance. For example, it might be annoying to be fined $2 for your library books being overdue, but it's not really animportant consequence in the grand scheme of things. On the other hand, missing the deadline with your big report might have huge negative consequences on your career.

Important but Not Urgent - The Crucial Things We Put Off

The category that time management experts recommend you concentrate on is the Important but Not Urgent tasks. Usually, items in this quadrant will become urgent if you leave them too long. For example:

  • That presentation due in three months will be looking pretty urgent in two months and twenty nine days...
  • Taking care of your health (eg. with exercise and good diet) might become urgent ten years down the line, when you get sick
  • Sorting out your taxes will become urgent once the deadline's imminent

Have a think about your own life. I'm willing to bet that there's been a time when you put off something Important but Not Urgent ... and ended up under a lot of stress because it did become urgent. This might have been anything from a term paper in college to an overdue trip to the dentist.

Why We React to Urgent 

Most of us have a tendency to react, in almost a knee-jerk way, to things that are urgent. This is a good survival technique (after all, if a saber-tooth tiger is about to eat you, you'd want to leave off inventing the wheel and run away...) Often, though, it leads to a very ineffective way of working: we deal with things in a panic, procrastinate over anything that isn't urgent, and end up creating a lot of stress for ourselves whilst not really accomplishing much.

Focusing on Important 
So how can you draw your focus back to the stuff that matters? How can you make sure you're working on what's truly important before it becomes urgent?

I'd suggest a few simple things:

  • Get rid of your not urgent and not important activities. (Note - that doesn't mean get rid of things that relax and recharge you: they are important.)
  • Make sure that urgent and not important activities never get in the way of important and not urgent ones.Frankly, it's probably better for you to work on your dissertation for two hours, instead of spending that time racing across town with your soon-to-be-overdue library books.
  • Remember that important is a matter of perspective. Be honest with yourself about what's important to you. Important tasks are ones which enrich your life: they don't have to be ones that involve making money or advancingyour career.
  • Start off your day with an important and not urgent task. This might be writing a chapter of your novel, getting some exercise, sorting out your tax return, learning a new language... as per the previous point, you define what's important to you.

Do you find that you end up spending most of your day on urgent - or on time wasters? How do you keep your focus on what really matters in your work and your life?