Once upon a time, my good friend Ed Mullen tweeted something that caught my attention. I saved it in my notebook, and on the following day, I printed it across my office whiteboard in big, bold letters:
“Everything I do, I do at the expense of something else.”
– Edward Mullen
This simple sentence resonated with every synapse of my brain, and it has become my favorite maxim ever since. I remember that for a long time, I was buried in email messages, my to-do list perpetually grew in size, and I consistently put important tasks on the back burner to simply catch up and keep up. Of course, I didn’t feel I was spinning my wheels at the time; I thought I was busy just like anyone else. It’s normal to eat at my computer desk or skip lunch altogether to squeeze one more thing in, isn’t it? I couldn’t precisely put my finger on what I needed to do, but when I read Ed’s tweet, I knew it spoke very elegantly of how I needed to change my approach to time management.
Managing my time had never been my forte, and while I’ve significantly improved over the course of my career, I’m frankly still getting the hang of it. Soon after I got an office job after college, I noticed that I and many of my colleagues tended to manage our time in reaction to what was happening to us or what was about to happen to us. I sensed that operating under this reactive mode severely restricted my creativity. I also discovered that dreadful metaphors such as “putting out fires” and “keeping my head above water” were common expressions in adulthood. What?? How am I expected to get anything done when I’m trying to avoid an impending fiery or watery death? Without explicitly grasping what I needed to change, I strived to become more “proactive” and “strategic” about tackling my to-do list.
As it turns out, managing time has very little to do with time at all. Managing time has very little to do with divvying up my 24 hours and color-coding my calendar to distribute my half-hour blocks to alternating activities. In fact, managing time has entirely to do with priorities; it’s all about having the discipline to hold myself accountable to my own priorities.
Let me emphasize this point because it’s fundamental to this blog post. Managing time is about being clear and true to myself about what’s important so that I’m not allowing the lesser priorities to distract me from getting the really important stuff done.
Sure, time is of the essence; I have competing priorities that I need to accomplish within a set amount of time, and I need to devote my time to accomplish them all. So when I slice up my clock between the competing priorities and get each of them done, the ultimate question at the end of the day is, “Did I live my life to the fullest?” If the answer is “No” or “I don’t know,” I must have poorly triaged my priorities; surely, I must’ve not been true to my own values when I set my sight on what to accomplish.
So what’s the important stuff I should prioritize? About a year ago, I came upon a clear, cognitive differentiation between “important” and “urgent.” The differentiation came in a book titled The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey. In it, the author introduced me to Eisenhower’s decision principle.
“I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”
– Dwight D. Eisenhower
Up until that point, I used to use the two words rather interchangeably. As a matter of fact, “urgent” is listed as a synonym of the word “important” in my dictionary, and I never had any reason to question how something urgent wouldn’t be important.
“Urgent” is based on things that are outside of my control: someone else’s schedule, natural events, and things that are already happening of their own accord. “Urgent” is time-driven and solicits an immediate, reactive response. “Important,” on the other hand, is based on my core values (or my organization’s core values if we’re talking about my job). Because “important” is value-driven, it solicits a deliberate and often judicious undertaking. In other words, “urgent” is the priority measured against the scale of time, whereas “important” is the priority measured against the scale of principle. The two are not the same nor similar.
The danger is that I often achieve a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction from responding to urgent matters because I immediately get to see how I was able to influence the outcome. Important things, however, don’t give me the same immediate gratification because they are typically things that I need to contemplate, plan, execute, and reevaluate over time. It’s easy to postpone or put aside the important things because there’s no pressure to immediately resolve them. I think it’s true for many people that important tasks get put on the back burner for many weeks, months, or sometimes years.
What I love about this differentiation between “important” and “urgent” is that it allows me to say no to things that are not particularly important while saying yes to things that are indeed important. Saying no can sometimes be very difficult because it can make me look stingy, uncooperative, spiteful, or vindictive. But if saying no enables me to say yes to the most important things in the bigger picture, I’m very okay with saying no.
I now have a small poster in my office at work to encapsulate this new perspective. Perhaps someday, this way of thinking about time management will become second nature to me, and I won’t need this poster to keep myself accountable to my own priorities. For the time being, though, I still do occasionally end up catering to urgent, unimportant things. The only difference now is that I consciously remind myself that I’ve done so at the expense of something else much more important.