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

But they can make the process less ambiguous. In doing so, they can help free you from the “tyranny of the urgent” that subordinates all questions of importance under itself.4

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. That pressure might rise to a level where you notice it making you disconcerted. If so, the cause of that pressure has moved from “not urgent” to “urgent.”

The reverse is also true. You might have a commitment you do need to complete. But that commitment might slides down the pressure scale to a point where you’re comfortable with it. In that case, it’s moved from “urgent” to “not urgent.”

Of course, 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.

Conclusion

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

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

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 doesn’t leave importance behind (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 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. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013), 159–64. 

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

  4. 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 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2019); and Rory Vaden, Procrastinate on Purpose: 5 Permissions to Multiply Your Time (New York: Perigee, 2015). 

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