Deciding what gets priority can prove challenging.1
Characteristics: Urgent, Important
Characteristics: Not Urgent, Important
|Not Important||Quadrant 3|
Characteristics: Urgent, Not Important
Characteristics: Not Urgent, Not Important
Even so, urgent activities can easily squeeze out those that are important. That danger is particularly acute because importance can be more difficult to ascertain than urgency.
So, the two can easily be confused by a kind of mental substitution. When asking the harder question “What’s most important?” it’s tempting to substitute the easier question “What’s pressing on me the most?”3
But pressure is more a signal of urgency than importance. Thus, the question of criteria becomes particularly acute when considering whether an activity is important and, if so, to what degree.
Criteria for Importance
Although there’s no mathematical formula for determining importance, you can ask four questions to help clarify whether something fits the bill.4
I’ll discuss the first three below. The fourth requires more comment, so I’ll address that one separately.
How Much Does Something Matter?
This question correlates with importance probably most directly and clearly. So, it’s probably also the least helpful (since its most likely to be most synonymous).
But it’s still worth asking explicitly. Sometimes, simply asking the question can start helping you realize that whatever you’re considering actually does (or doesn’t) matter all that much. You can then rate its importance accordingly.
For How Long Does Something Matter?
When considering urgency, you’re interested in when something matters, specifically how soon it matters. Importance is also concerned with time, but things that are important often matter for longer.
For instance, you might feel that it matters to be current with the news. But if you are current, you’ll have to get current again tomorrow.
By contrast, when you invest your time in durable relationships or projects, those can matter for a great deal longer than nearer-term aims. So, you should tend to weigh those things that matter for longer as more important and vice versa.
In What Context Does Something Matter?
Not infrequently, a given activity might appear to matter a great deal in one context. But if you reframe the context—especially by taking a bigger-picture perspective—you might find that it matters less or not at all.
For instance, if you’re invited to a meeting, you might earn a kind of good will by going, even if you have nothing particular to contribute. But if you’re in the meeting, you won’t be working on a research project that will have a much longer-term significance.
So, that wider perspective would lead you to weight working on your research as more important than warming a chair in a conference room.
Ultimately, importance is weightier than urgency. But amid the loud clamor and heavy pressure from the urgent, it can be hard to tell what’s actually important.
To start discerning, ask how much, for how long, and in what context something matters. You’ll still have to integrate and evaluate the answers. But you’ll have ready at hand some of the key building blocks for determining whether something is important and, if so, to what degree.
On this matrix, see especially Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change, 25th anniversary ed. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013), 159–64. ↩
Cf. David Allen, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (New York: Penguin, 2003), 48. In deriving the questions I discuss below, I’ve particularly benefitted from Allen, Things; Covey, Habits; Michael S. Hyatt, Free to Focus: A Total Productivity System to Achieve More by Doing Less (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2019); and Rory Vaden, Procrastinate on Purpose: 5 Permissions to Multiply Your Time (New York: Perigee, 2015). ↩