Rethinking “Urgent” and “Important” In Modern Life

Mar 04, 2021

Created by the author — original image from Nara.


“Dad! I got to talk to you… I’m scared Dad”

It’s Christmas Eve and Walter is delivering a big presentation to his board of directors. You can see the jitters in his face, he knows his head is on the chopping block if things go wrong. His eyes flit between his boss and his son.

“Let me just finish this meeting then erm we’ll figure it out ok?”

“Figure out what?… All you care about is yourself!”

What should Walter have done? He has to decide between his career and the pleas of his child. Neither will forgive him if they are overlooked. I’ll leave you in suspense and you’ll have to watch Elf if you want to find out what Walter did. Though you can probably guess because it’s a Christmas movie.

Life isn’t a Christmas movie though and we have to face these real dilemmas throughout our day. In the film, Walter’s son ran to his office across town but in the new normal for many parents, children are on the other side of a makeshift office door. I know many who don’t feel like they are working from home but living at work.

Many of us are taught productivity tools to deal with the competing interests in our work lives. It makes sense for companies to equip us with these to get the most out of our time in the office. Yet it’s much harder to deal with competing interests across different areas of our lives; relationships vs work, family vs friends, relaxation vs exercise.

To better navigate this, one tool I’ve found effective is a modified Eisenhower matrix. It was originally created by the former President to deal with the stress of his position. It’s usually used exclusively for work but I’ve expanded it to include everything in my day.

If you’re not familiar with it, get a piece of paper and draw lines across the middle vertically and horizontally. Label the sections as in the photo; important & urgent, important & non-urgent, non-important & urgent, non-important and non-urgent.

Created by the author

Now think about the tasks you have swirling about in your head for today and place them on the sheet. Urgent for our context means needs to be done today. Think about scale so the most critical item is the top right corner and it’s different for everyone so there’s no judgment. A friend of mine goes for a walk with his wife at 6 pm no matter what. Right now, calling my family every day is non-negotiable.

Created by the author

The key section is “Urgent & Important” and these are the priorities for the day. When time is running low, I will sacrifice the tasks closer to the borders of this section first. In this example, while I’d prefer to help my colleague on the day, I know it’s ok if I help tomorrow instead.

You might be surprised to see watching a soccer game so close to the main section but it’s a way I destress at the end of the day. Don’t underestimate the things you do for your sanity! As new tasks come in throughout the day, you can add them to the page and shuffle around the other tasks. I use arrows to adjust my priorities when needed.

You might be thinking Walter couldn’t pull out his piece of paper on the spot to add “talk to worried son”. You’d be absolutely right yet through doing this exercise, you’ll spot a pattern in your behavior and how you react to different scenarios. Walter would know he tends to sacrifice his family for his work and wouldn’t be happy with the reflection the Eisenhower matrix shows him.

The way you start off the sheet is what you imagine your best self would do. The mess at the end of the day with arrows pushing things into tomorrow is what you really do. My weakness is buying a quick dinner to save time for tasks I self-identified as less important.

This isn’t an exercise to make you feel bad about yourself but to close the gap between the real you and your ideal you. It’s harder to be in denial about the everyday trade-offs you are making when they are mapped out in front of you I hope it will help you live in greater alignment with what deep down matters to you.

Amar's Letter

Real talk on driving impact as an imperfect human.