Urgent, Important, and Other: Priority Management

May 2020 | by michael j. hitchcock

"There's not enough time in the day to get everything done!" Those words have slipped from the lips of every human being in every language at some point in their lives.

Why do we feel so unproductive, struggling to get off the couch and do the things we keep talking about? During a time such as this, when many of us are stuck in our homes, what is holding us back from learning that language, building that shed, or getting that degree we’ve been talking about for years?

Let’s start with the lie of time management. Merriam-Webster defines "to manage" as "to work upon or try to alter for a purpose." Have you ever tried to "work" or "alter" time? Time is finite and unmanageable. You will never change the amount or rate of time. Time management is a lie.

Now let’s assign a value to time. Value is relative and determined by availability and need, aka supply and demand. Gold is rare with a finite supply and, therefore, highly valuable whereas, paper is sustainable and plentiful, making it less valuable. High supply and low demand mean low value, while low supply and high demand mean high value - economics 101.

Time cannot be replenished. When today passes, it cannot be relived. No do-overs. Moreover, each of us is blissfully unaware of how much time we have available to us in the future. It could be decades or minutes. The inability to replenish time (supply) and the finite, unknown amount of time available to achieve our goals (demand) make this our most precious resource. It is both irreplaceable and unmanageable.

Fortunately, we can manage what we do with our available time. This is Priority Management. Powerless to create more time, we do have the ability to choose how we prioritize our activities within our available time. This is how we build that shed or learn that language.

The first step is to set goals and objectives. A goal is an end-game. "Build a tool shed by the end of September," for example. Objectives are a roadmap of milestones that take us to the goal. For the shed project, we might set objectives such as choosing a design, making a layout, buying lumber and hardware, laying the foundation, etc. Both goals and objectives should have due dates. Write down your goal and objectives and put it somewhere you will see it every day.

The second step is to create a daily to-do list for every day of your life. This list has only three sections on it: Urgent, Important, and Other. It holds activities that bring you closer to your goal. Put your daily to-do list on paper, a whiteboard, a computer desktop, or anywhere you can see it first thing in the morning and several times throughout the day.

Urgent items are those that must be completed today. Building that shed might include, "Assess lumber needs,” or “Spend 30 minutes preparing the foundation.” If it can be done tomorrow, it is not urgent. Some days you will not have an Urgent item.

Important items are those which need to be done by the end of the week. You can spend some time online researching concrete options for that shed, but you need to get it done this week if you’re going to meet your goal of having it built by the end of September.

Other items are simply neither Urgent nor Important. Many Other items often fall off the list as they either don't need to be done, or they are optional. Perhaps "build shelving" is something you were thinking of for the shed, but you're not entirely convinced you'll need it. Keep in mind that Other items sometimes move to Urgent or Important and vice-versa. Be flexible.

The last step is to maintain your lists and do the work. Each day you do the work on the daily to-do list and then, at the end of the day, consult your objectives and update tomorrow’s to-do list. Don’t forget to take a day or two off per week, if it fits your plan.

Here's my testimony: I used this simple method in my professional career as an international manager and leader for nearly fifteen years, but it also applies well to our personal lives. A few years ago, my wife and I decided (on a whim) to live in Japan. We wrote down our goal (Move to Japan in 1 year). We then created a list of objectives that included "Find employment in Japan" and "Become a Certified English Teacher." We arrived at our new home in Japan one month earlier than we had planned. We also did this to erase our credit card and other loan debts in less than a year. Priority Management works.

So stop trying to change time and start prioritizing what you do with the time you have. Build that shed, learn that language, get that degree, or learn to bake. Whatever your goals, they are achievable as long as you follow the rule of Urgent, Important, and Other. You are in control!

Originally printed in the May 2020 issue of Simply Local Magazine

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