You are busy. But are you making progress?
How many days have you spent running around getting a million things done, only to look at your to-do list or big goals and realize that you made zero progress on them?
We all struggle to balance the urgent with the important.
If you’re tired of making progress on things that matter to other people or that don’t move you towards your goals, it is time to make a change. The distractions and demands on your attention won’t ever go away. But you can learn to deal with them more effectively.
Spotting the difference between urgent and important
Things that are urgent and things that are important are hard to differentiate — that’s why so many of us struggle to balance them.
Things that are urgent are those that seem to demand our immediate attention. Emails seem urgent, because they pop up and demand an answer. New projects seem urgent, because they’re shiny and new and it’s validating when someone wants your input.
Things that are important are those that truly add value. They are the things that move you towards your biggest goals, towards being the person you want to be.
Important work doesn’t have to be big; it isn’t about the task, it’s about the value that it adds.
Why you choose urgent work more often
It seems like it would be an obvious choice between urgent and important. After all, why wouldn’t you choose to work on the things that are going to truly matter in your life and take you far?
But in our daily lives, it plays out very differently.
And the reason why is simple: urgent work feels good to do. It feels good to solve a problem, to be needed, to be smart enough to handle something and get it done. It feels good to have other people see us being busy, accomplishing things, and having the right answers.
From the outside, people who deal with urgent things often *look* successful.
But true success isn’t about being busy or always having the answer. It is about progress, moving forward, and doing the work that really makes a difference.
It is the people who learn how to overcome the struggle between the ease and satisfaction of urgent work with the commitment and struggle of important work who are truly successful.
Most people just give in to the ease of the urgent, and are satisfied with the feeling of being busy and getting things done. They never stop to think about how being busy and getting things done does not equal true progress or success.
Successful people know when and how to invest in the important work. They know it is important. They know that urgent work will never stop coming, but they don’t have to give into it, because it is simply not important.
How to guard your time for important, not urgent, work
Urgent work takes priority a lot of the time because other people ask it of us.
After all, when someone walks over to your desk and asks you to proofread something for them really quick, it’s easy to think, “Sure, what’s the big deal?”
And on its own, yeah, it’s not a big deal. But these small interruptions add up; every time you allow yourself to be put onto someone else’s schedule, it shuffles your priorities and pushes your most important work lower and lower.
We all need to learn to guard our time; to know when we can make allowances for distractions and other people’s schedules, and when we cannot.
This is where weekly ninja planning sessions are extremely useful. By knowing what is really important for you to work on every week, you can plot out your time in advance so you know when it will all get done.
That way, you’re not flying by the seat of your pants and having to make a judgment call every time a distraction comes up. You’ll know: I either have time for this, or I don’t. If an urgent problem comes up that you truly can’t ignore, then it is simply a matter of re-shuffling your weekly schedule, rather than starting over from scratch.
If you get a lot of requests for help with urgent issues, you don’t have to say yes to all of them and you don’t have to say yes to all of them right away.
If someone requests a meeting with you, you are not obligated to go. Schedule it for when you have time, or let them know you just don’t have time right now. This doesn’t have to be rude or harsh; you can always offer to chat over email or to meet in a few months’ time. As long as you are friendly and clear about where you’re coming from, the other person will almost always understand and be happy to comply with your schedule.
How to prioritize your important work and make it happen
Urgent work is appealing because it is easy, it gets done, and it has a deadline. Important work gets pushed aside because it is often challenging, complex, and nebulous.
If you want to train your brain to see important work as equally satisfying as urgent work, then you need to reframe how you think about and schedule your important work.
1. Schedule your important work. If you always plan on doing your important work once the urgent stuff gets taken care of, you’ll never get to the important work. There will always be something that comes up to keep you distracted.
You need to make time on your schedule for work that moves you towards your goals if you truly want it to happen. Whether it’s an hour a day or a full day every weekend, setting aside time and taking it seriously is how you commit to actually making progress.
“If we wait until we’re ready, we’ll be waiting for the rest of our lives.” ― Lemony Snicket
2. Break your biggest goals into manageable steps. If your goal is to launch a brand new product, it can be kind of daunting to dive into, even when you’ve set aside time for it. Instead, look at your big goals as many small projects, and then schedule time for completing each small project. For example, you might need to make phone calls to suppliers or write copy for a product page.
Schedule time for each of these smaller goals, instead of just trying to “make progress” on your bigger goal, so that you can get to experience the satisfaction of actually completing a project and feeling like it wasn’t overwhelmingly hard.
3. Define your ambiguous goals. If you’re having trouble making progress on your goals, it could be because you don’t really understand them. If your goal is to get promoted, how do you plan to do that? If it’s just to “be better at your job”, then there is no real way to make concrete progress on that, which makes it hard to work on (and easy to ignore).
Instead, think about why you want to get promoted. Is it more money? More control over projects? These goals have very different paths. If you want to make more money, what is the role that will allow you to do that best? What skills do you need to be considered an amazing candidate for that role? How can you build those skills?
If you want more control over projects, you’ll need to look at totally different criteria. Who currently has the most control over projects? Why is that? Do you have the skills that make them successful? If not, how will you go about building those skills?
By knowing exactly what you are working towards and why, you can create a plan that actually has action items and steps you can take to achieve your goal. The clearer your goals, the faster you will achieve them.
4. Set deadlines for your important work. Important work gets pushed to the back burner because it usually doesn’t have a deadline. You can change that.
Even if there is no true deadline for your project, start setting one. As you look at the many steps you need to take to make progress on your goal, set deadlines for achieving them. If they are small enough, maybe you set an expectation to complete one per week. If they are bigger, pick deadlines that won’t be overwhelming to achieve but that will make sure they get done.
Stop losing the war of urgent vs. important!
Being successful is as much about your commitment to your success as anything else. When you take your goals seriously, there is very little that can stand in your way!
Where are your biggest goals getting blocked? What are your biggest distractions every day?