the urgent and important can go together

The Urgent vs. The Important

the XKCD comic illustrates that the urgent is often not important.
You know it applies to you…

There’s a well-known saying – attributed in various forms to various people including Franklin Covey, Dwight Eisenhower, Charles E. Hummel, and a bevy of others – goes something like this: “Never let the urgent get in the way of the important.”

It is a good thing to keep in mind. Certainly in the world of the Gravy Hose there’s always things that seem to be pretty urgent, from the latest tweet to the CNN update to that message from that person. It interrupts focus, it keeps us from getting into flow, and can distract us into hours of procrastination.

But I’m not going to tell you that you should turn all those things off.

The Saying Is Wrong.

The urgent, by definition, should supersede the important. That’s what “urgent” means: requires immediate attention. If something is urgent, then ignoring it is going to actually cause something bad to happen.

The trick is to correctly identify the difference between “urgent” and “noisy.” It’s one of the mysterious skills of parenting: you learn the difference in tone between “I really need you now!” and “I’m really not happy, but if you wait thirty seconds I’ll get distracted and be all happy-burbly again!” It is amazing for those who are not attuned to the specific frequencies of small children to watch parents hear a cry, cock their heads, and then shrug and ignore it. A moment later, another cry happens and almost before it registers the parent is down the hall because that cry was actually urgent.

Obviously that means that whatever they were doing before the child cried was not important, right? Or if it was important, they should have simply ignored the crying and continued to focus and prioritize and all those other good words self-development blogs toss around.

I hope the sarcasm font is coming through. Happily most parents are complex individuals capable of taking care of both the urgent and the important. Gayle Rubin, author of the Happiness Project, talked about the contradiction between saying that her children were her priority but her husband was the most important person in her life. She didn’t go into it much, but she suggested that it was a thorny problem.

The thing is, I don’t think it is. Not so much. Children are the definition of urgency, and the things that are capital-I Important are generally things that don’t require attention constantly.

Urgency Changes Fast; Importance Changes Slow

It’s easy enough to illustrate this with the idea of Date Night. So as not to focus on parenting, though, let’s shift from parents’ date night (a very important thing) to an average couple about to have their own special intimate evening. Let’s say that one of them had a job interview earlier in the day.

The job interview was important, but now they are both taking steps to put it out of their mind. Their relationship is important to each other, and as the hours tick past afternoon to evening they are shifting focus from the outside world of work and friends and pets and onto each other. The food dishes are full, the DVR is set up, their phone notifications are turned off except for an email alert that will go off if the potential employer gets back to them. Both agree that is a call they’d want to get.

So many levels of importance there! The importance of reciprocal focus to foster intimacy. The importance of being responsible to friends and pets. The importance of sharing life-changing news. They start their evening with all the right ingredients, and when the phone buzzes they are excited and optimistic as they huddle over the tiny screen.

Unfortunately it’s not the news they were hoping for. Then again, it also wasn’t the news they feared. No, all the Deciders but one are in favor of hiring the hopeful employee, and that one will be easily convinced if a certain question is answered. It’s not a hard question, but it’s a complex one, both a hypothetical problem and an opportunity for the applicant to show off some past work from a portfolio. And it needs to be ready in the morning, or they’re going with a different applicant.

In short, there needs to be a choice: is it going to be date night? Or is it going to be a night of crafting a document to get a job?

I honestly haven’t given enough information to accurately answer the question. Is this date night because the couple have trouble giving time to each other? Is it possible this is the final straw that will break them? Or have they been desperate for the second income and this will be the thing that gives them stability? There’s all kinds of other factors that need to be considered. But keeping within the limited parameters, it’s pretty clear: suddenly something is urgently in need of attention.

Does that mean that date night isn’t important? Are we going to make the common leap that this means the person doesn’t really think the relationship is all that important either? I would hope not. The odds are that the relationship will still be there in the morning, and for the following evening, and for the next date night.

Urgent and Important are not zero-sum games.

It is entirely possible to deal with urgent things while at the same time maintaining what is important. In fact, we do it all the time, shifting focus and attention as needed throughout our days. If I’m writing a blog post and suddenly need to pee, does that mean that I must soldier through and finish the post before relieving myself? That’s silly! Taking care of the urgent is smart – in fact, it’s one of David Allen’s first productivity tips: if a “to-do” item will take less than a minute or two, do it now.

No, what is needed is a more clear idea of what actually is urgent as opposed to what is simply a distraction. We’ll be talking about one particular method on Monday.

May your weekend be filled with urgently wonderful importance!

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