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Urgent: Read This Unimportant Article

By Greg Harris

I remember being taught the difference between "urgent" and "important," yet I seem to forget this lesson on a regular basis. Hopefully by sharing this lesson with the Jameco audience I will at least remember it myself.

If forced to divide up the world into a two-by-two matrix with urgent along one axis and important along the other axis, no one would argue about which tasks to do first. If it is both urgent and important everything in your life takes a back seat. Similarly if it of low importance and low urgency it will get done last.

The challenge becomes whether you should do urgent things of less importance or important things of less urgency first. Admittedly, this matrix over simplifies our lives, but I'm here to tell you that most people get this wrong. The higher priority should be to focus first on important things even if they don't have a high urgency. And yet I never find life quite this simple.

Unimportant Article
The customer emails, the warehouse calls, accounting needs a signature, the CEO wants a report and there are 100 vendors who are begging for my attention. My day is filled with unplanned demands for my time that all seem urgent, yet relative to my plan for the day nothing is more important than what I'm working on. I could easily put that five year plan off every day because of all the urgent stuff that rolls through every day to the point that five years later the plan was never done. Things like new customer services, web site improvements or adding a new sales channel are all more important than those urgent things beating down my door, but no one expects them to get done today.

Managing the short-term urgent stuff with the long-term important stuff is something that crosses virtually every department. Teams that are predominantly reactive struggle to keep their heads above water knowing that the only solution is to stop doing the urgent stuff and start proactively focusing on the important stuff.
Unimportant Article

My model is easy to administer in the perfect world between my ears, but the reality is that's extremely difficult to manage in the real world. Many simply try to get everything done and ignore the need to prioritize. Or, they skimp on the important stuff and lie to themselves that they gave it sufficient attention. Then there are those that simply never get the important stuff done.

Let's take one of my daily challenges. As the head of Jameco's Sales, it's important that I be available for customers when they call. When my phone rings, like Pavlov's dog, I jump ready to help a distressed customer. The problem is that 90% of the time that the phone rings it's someone trying to sell me something. Every one of these calls is super urgent, just not important to me.

Ring ring

"Hello, this is Greg Harris."

"Hi Greg, how are you doing today?"

Most customers don't begin a conversation this way. The probability that this call is important went from about 10% down to about 2% based on this innocuous question alone.

"I'm fine. How can I help you?"

"That's great to hear Greg, I'm calling because I want to learn more about your sales and marketing strategy and how you..."

Beyond the fact that this is a horrible opening for any Sales Rep making a cold call, it has helped me conclude in under 5 seconds that as urgent as the call may be to the caller, it is not important.

At this point my options are to be polite and carry on a conversation with the sales rep, or I could simply hang up the phone without uttering another sound. Generally speaking I do something in between, but rarely does a call make it to the 20 second mark. I know people are a little surprised by how abrupt I am with Sales Reps. No I'm not terribly polite by our social norms, but what's clear to me, is that if I was polite to every sales rep that called me, I would be fired for not getting my job done.

Managing our time is a challenge for everyone, and balancing short-term versus long-term projects is always hard.