Urgency: the natural way to prioritise?

by Mark Forster.

Ever since Charles Hummel wrote his classic 1967 essay The Tyranny of the Urgent, urgency has had a bad press in the time management world. Received time management wisdom has long been that prioritising should be by importance, with urgency as a side-show at best. We’re all by now familiar with Stephen Covey’s Four Quadrants, which gives Important two of the “good” quadrants while Urgent is only allowed one “good” quadrant and then only because it shares it with Important.

The questions I have are “Does Prioritising by Urgency deserve its bad reputation?” and its corollary “Is Prioritising by Importance all that it’s cracked up to be?”

If you construct a To-Do list in which all the tasks relate to your commitments (and every to-do list should be constructed on that basis), then everything on that list ultimately has to be done. You have, in other words, to have the intention to meet the specifications that go with each of your commitments. If you don’t have that intention, it’s not a commitment. And if it’s not a commitment it shouldn’t be on your to-do list.

Having accepted that everything on your to-do list has to be done, then the easiest and most direct way of getting through the list would be a simple First In First Out method. You do the list in the order in which tasks get written on the list. Importance makes no difference to the order, because if everything has to be done everything is equally important.

Of course we all know that this FIFO method wouldn’t work, and the reason it wouldn’t work is because tasks have different degrees of urgency. Urgency is what makes it necessary for us to do one particular task before another regardless of where it’s written on the list.

Urgency is in fact the natural way to prioritise. We do things first because they need to be done first. The farmer sows the seed and later the crop appears. At one time sowing becomes urgent and at another reaping. There is no possible way of saying that sowing is more important than reaping or vice versa.

Why then does prioritising by urgency have such a bad press? I think there are two reasons:

The first is that people tend to think of the degree of urgency a task has in terms of when the task needs to be finished, when in fact the urgency relates to when the task needs to be started. This misconception is one reason why Prioritising by Urgency is so often equated with deadline-chasing.

The second is that in the complications of modern life people very rarely do actually prioritise by urgency. They only start to prioritise by urgency when their other methods, or lack of them, have failed. The result is the same as in the first reason: deadline-chasing.


Mark Forster

Mark Forster is the author of three books about time management and personal organisation. The most recent, Do It Tomorrow, was published by Hodder in 2006.

© Copyright Mark Forster 2012. All rights reserved.

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