Important Not Urgent

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Important, But Not Urgent

Alex Miller Ballwin, Missouri, USA

The personal productivity classic, "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People," by Steven Covey, categorizes activities along a vertical axis, importance, and a horizontal axis, urgency. We now have four possible combinations:

1. Important and Urgent – Velociraptor* attack.

2. Important, but Not Urgent – Preparing future product strategy; reworking a problematic part of the product.

3. Not Important, but Urgent - Neighbor calling to borrow some sugar.

4. Not Important, and Not Urgent – YouTube; surfing the web.

Let’s examine how to maximize our effectiveness.

Consider the Not Important, Not Urgent tasks (#4) first. Most of these activities (the ones you might categorize as “slacking off”) can simply be dropped. These activities are, by definition, not important (so why are you doing them?) and not urgent (so they can surely wait). If category 4 activities are mandated by your company, you should be asking your boss why you must do them. Smart managers don’t want people doing unimportant work.

We should also strive to reduce the occurrence of Not Important, but Urgent activities (#3). One technique is to ask the source of the event to contact you in a way that lets you deal with the event at a time of your choosing. Another technique is to alter your environment to avoid being interrupted. Phone calls and e-mail are often treated as urgent, regardless of their importance. Use voice mail or e-mail filters to reduce the urgency of these tools.

Important and Urgent activities (#1) generally must be handled as they occur. However, you should work to install systems (risk prevention) that address the cause of these events. For example, if bugs are causing a system to fail in production, you should analyze the cause of these bugs and institute quality controls to prevent them from occurring again. The best way to reduce the important and urgent events is to institute feedback loops that address the root cause of these occurrences.

The Important, but Not Urgent activities (#2) are the most important things you can do in your job. This is where you do knowledge work and produce value. If you did 25% more of these activities, your boss would give you a raise.

As a software project manager, you are in a unique position to focus the work of your entire team on the Important, but Not Urgent activities. Your job is to buffer your team from meaningless tasks (#4) and urgent but unimportant requests from other teams (#3). You as the manager have the power to say no to these requests. Do them yourself, hire a lackey to do them, or just say no!

Your team can’t ignore Important and Urgent activities (#1), but if your team spends all it’s time fighting fires, then you need to fix the faulty wires causing the fires (#2). You might not see the benefits immediately, but over time your team will spend more and more time doing the Important, but Not Urgent activities that make or break a project.

  • Velociraptor – A small, carnivorous dinosaur characterized as a great threat to humans in Steven Spielberg’s science fiction thriller, “Jurassic Park”.
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