Sunday, September 19, 2010

Urgent vs Important Work

A topic that I've ruminated on a bit lately is the idea of urgent work vs important work.

Basic distinction between the two is that one category is something requiring (or purported by someone to require) immediate action and one category has no immediacy, but is of import in the big picture. Really what you've got with the first category of "urgent" is two different things... "urgent / important" and "not important, but urgent to the person who says it is."

One thing to keep in mind is that urgent and important is a very relative terms depending on the work at hand. I've made a comment to this effect in a previous blog post, but the type of work written about here by Sebastian Junger is very different than the type of work referenced in this blog post.

It having now been said that fighting in a war and working in an office are about as different as two things can be, both activities are subject to this whole urgent / important distinction.


First, the urgent things... and how they can double as important ones. For a solider, there's no more urgent situation than combat, and also nothing more important. In the much more mundane corporate world, a situation both urgent and important could be one with a time-sensitive deliverable that impacts the business and people who work in it.

Not all urgent scenarios in work double as important, though, regardless of the type of work at hand. For a solider, an order from a commanding officer could be urgent from the perspective that you're supposed to execute on it immediately, but that order could accomplish little beyond making the commanding officer feel powerful to have given an order acted upon. In an office environment, there can be lots and lots of non-important urgent work. Much of this coming from people being sent off to do tasks that don't accomplish much in the big picture, but make someone feel good to give directions... or that task assigner incorrectly thinks it matters.

With it established that there's urgent and important work as well as urgent, but not important work, this takes one to the third type of work... that which is non-urgent, but important.

To stay within the same comparison of a military and corporate setting... soldiers aren't going to spend 100% of their time in combat. While not engaged in an urgent activity, something of huge import would be training as well as planning and preparing for future missions. Conversely, for a white collar worker, there's important (again, relative term when compared to things done by Servicemen and Women) activities like documenting processes and tracking of activities to ensure needed activities brought to completion.

There may be nobody asking for this type of non-urgent work to be done (in any work environment), but it's certainly important. Now, in the military you're more obligated to obey orders than other kinds of work, but with this acknowledged, the goal in work should be to focus on the urgent / important as well as important activities, and not get bogged down in the urgent / unimportant.

True, it's easier said that done, but to accomplish pretty much anything you have to start with the intention towards that end.