Deciding what gets priority can prove challenging.1
Characteristics: Urgent, Important
Characteristics: Not Urgent, Important
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.
Although there’s no mathematical formula for determining importance, you can ask four questions to help clarify whether something fits the bill.4
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. As you do, you might find it particularly helpful to avoid asking it abstractly. Instead, asking about comparative importance might be more straightforward—”How much does x matter in comparison to y?”
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, a wider perspective would lead you to weight working on your research as more important than warming a chair in a conference room.
For Whom Does Something Matter?
In addition to the first three questions, you need to ask “For whom does something matter?”5 This question of for whom something matters contains two distinct senses.
The first is interest. This sense highlights who benefits from whatever activity you’re considering.
The command to love your neighbor excludes no one (Lev 19:18; Mark 12:31 pars.). So, as a good (next door) neighbor, you might watch out for your neighbor’s children when you see them playing too close to a busy street.
On the other hand, everyone has the same level of claim on your involvement. Consequently, you won’t invest in your neighbor’s children in the same ways and to the same degree as you do your own. (And your neighbor would have good grounds to find you rather creepy if you tried.)
Or as Paul says, “Let us do good to all, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith.”6 The doing of good especially to one class of people doesn’t by any means imply that others are excluded. But it does direct specific attention to the priority of the claims that certain specific others have on benefitting from your doing good.
Paul considers this principle particularly as it applies in the Christian community. But it helpfully extends elsewhere too. You wouldn’t want to do good to a casual acquaintance in a way that means you’ll fail to do good to those who are closest to you.
So, the closer to the center someone is in your “circle of concern,” the more important an activity associated with that person will be.7
The second sense of the question “For whom does something matter?” has to do with agency. In this sense, the question highlights who performs the activity you’re considering.
In some cases, an activity might matter, so it’s important and needs to be addressed. But it might not matter that you’re the one who does it.
There might be an equally good outcome if the activity were to be addressed without your involvement. That might happen by someone else doing it (delegation) or by creating a system so that no one has to do it (automation).
Sometimes, the outcome might even be better if you’re not involved because you’re not the best person to produce that outcome. Another person might have more expertise, speed, bandwidth, or any variety of resources that will allow him or her to produce a better outcome than you could.
Or setting up a system that runs without input from anyone could do the same. Automated systems are excellent for ensuring consistency, since they circumvent human error. And they keep work from trading hands. It just moves off everyone’s plate altogether.
Consequently, the more something can be handled automatically or the more someone else is better able to handle it, the less important it is for you to be the one to do it.
A Matter of Responsibility
It can feel a bit odd to reckon squarely with a difference in levels of different people’s claims on you or need for your involvement.
But life’s too short for you to spend it on what’s not important for you to be doing. Discerning what that is isn’t about selfishness. It’s about personal responsibility and self-discipline.
As Greg McKeown summarizes,
When we try to do it all and have it all, we find ourselves making trade-offs at the margins that we would never take on as our intentional strategy. When we don’t purposefully and deliberately choose where to focus our energies and time, other people … will choose for us, and before long we’ll have lost sight of everything that is meaningful and important. We can either make our choices deliberately or allow other people’s agendas to control our lives.8
By all means, yes, you should extend to others the kindness of being of service to them. But both kindness and self-discipline are fruits of the same Spirit (cf. Gal 5:22–23).
And it’s sometimes necessary to exercise the discipline of incurring unpopularity with some people in order to prioritize what matters to others as fully as they deserve.
All of this is about intentionally devoting yourself to what you honestly believe is best because, in the end, the person you’ll have to give an account for is you.
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,
- in what context, and
- to whom
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. (affiliate disclosure; New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013), 159–64. ↩
Cf. David Allen, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (affiliate disclosure; 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 (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). ↩
Particularly helpful in assembling this list have been Allen, Getting Things Done; Covey, Highly Effective People; Hyatt, Free to Focus; and Vaden, Procrastinate on Purpose. ↩
Gal 6:10; my translation. ↩
For helpful discussion of the relationships between a “circle of concern” and a “circle of influence,” see Covey, Habits, 88–100. ↩