How Do You Know When Something Is Urgent?

Deciding what gets priority can be tricky.1 But the Eisenhower Matrix is an incredibly useful tool to clarify your activities and basic responses to them.2

UrgentNot Urgent
ImportantQuadrant 1
Characteristics: Urgent, Important
Response: Abbreviate
Quadrant 2
Characteristics: Not Urgent, Important
Response: Concentrate
Not ImportantQuadrant 3
Characteristics: Urgent, Not Important
Response: Separate
Quadrant 4
Characteristics: Not Urgent, Not Important
Response: Eliminate

Without clarity about what makes something urgent or important, urgency can readily masquerade as importance. When it does so, Quadrants 1 and 3 can easily drown out Quadrant 2.

Clearly, any criteria for identifying the urgency or importance of your commitments can’t yield consistent results mechanically and automatically.3 Such decisions are just as hermeneutical as are the rest of your interactions with the world.4

But clear criteria can make the process less ambiguous. And that decrease in ambiguity can help free you from the “tyranny of the urgent” that subordinates all questions of importance under itself.5

Criteria for Urgency

Between the urgency and importance, it’s much easier to identify urgency. Urgency focuses on the question: When does something matter?

The sooner something matters, the greater its urgency. The greater the urgency, the more whatever situation will press upon you socially, emotionally, cognitively, or otherwise.

That pressure occurs on a sliding scale because there are degrees of urgency, just as there are of importance. For example, a heart attack has greater urgency (and importance) than a cavity. But the basic transition from “not urgent” to “urgent” comes when something starts demanding your attention, however softly or loudly.

That demand expresses itself as pressure that may rise to a level where you notice it making you disconcerted. Even in this state, a given demand might still be less urgent than something else. But a feeling of pressure or disconcertedness can provide a clear indication of when something has moved from “not urgent” to somewhere in the “urgent” column.

The reverse is also true. You might have a commitment you do need to complete. But you might be able to negotiate a deadline for that commitment that you feel is sufficiently long-term.

In that case, the commitment might slide down the pressure scale to a point where you’re comfortable with it. If it does, it’s moved from “urgent” to “not urgent.”


At this stage, it can be helpful to probe whether the urgency dissipates if you reframe an activity.

Perhaps there’s an emotional push to complete something as soon as possible. But you might recognize that there won’t be any discernable negative consequences until much later.

Where such feelings are bound up with expectations from others, you might be able to ameliorate the urgency of an item simply by communicating or negotiating clearly about your plans for it.

If the urgency remains for whatever reason, you’ll have a Quadrant 1 or 3 activity. But if it dissipates, then you have a Quadrant 2 or 4 activity.

If the urgency dissipates and the activity doesn’t remain important (Quadrant 4), you can simply eliminate the activity.

Or if the urgency dissipates but importance remains (Quadrant 2), you can concentrate on that commitment at the appropriate time(s). And in the interim, you can avoid being harried over how quickly you’ll complete it.

  1. Header image provided by Oliver Roos

  2. On this matrix, see especially Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change, 25th anniversary ed. (affiliate disclosure; New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013), 159–64. 

  3. Cf. David Allen, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (affiliate disclosure; New York: Penguin, 2003), 48. 

  4. E.g., see Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, ed. and trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, 2nd ed., Bloomsbury Revelations (affiliate disclosure; London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), 401–514. 

  5. Particularly helpful in assembling this list have been Allen, Things; Covey, Habits; Michael S. Hyatt, Free to Focus: A Total Productivity System to Achieve More by Doing Less (affiliate disclosure; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2019); and Rory Vaden, Procrastinate on Purpose: 5 Permissions to Multiply Your Time (affiliate disclosure; New York: Perigee, 2015). 

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