The Urgent vs. The Important

“I get completely caught up in fire-fighting and can’t find the time to advance my longer-term priorities.”-  It’s a common managerial wailing. We all have either used it ourselves or have heard people around us use it at work. The frustration one feels, when ‘the urgent’ crowds out ‘the important’ is something we all have experienced.

So, how do we deal with this? Here are some strategies that can help.

The first is having clear and realistic longer-term priorities. If you haven’t defined your A-item priorities, or if you are trying to take on too much, it’s hard to avoid getting sucked into a black hole. You can’t realistically hope to advance more than four or five significant strategic initiatives. So, what are they? What are you going to try to do and what are you not going to try to do? Your bosses will evaluate you on whether or not you got a few key things accomplished, so it’s essential to be clear about what those are. Devote some time to clarifying and getting buy-in from them. Write them down. Put them up on the wall. Look at them every day and ask yourself, “How does, what I’m doing now help to advance these?”

A second strategy is to distinguish between unproductive and productive tactical effort. Just because you are devoting a lot of effort to solving specific problems, or advancing particular short-term goals, doesn’t necessarily mean you are caught up in “fire-fighting.” If you are proactively defining your agenda and focusing on specific issues to lay the foundation for accomplishing your strategic priorities, that’s good. If you are reacting to events and end up devoting significant time to issues unrelated to achieving your A-item priorities, that’s bad. Stay clear in your mind about this distinction and use it to evaluate progress.

A third strategy is to delegate more effectively. Do not race to a rescue. This may have yielded success in low-level managerial positions, but it’s a recipe for trouble in more senior positions. Any time a subordinate brings you a problem, ask yourself, “Is this really something that I need to be involved with?” If not, tell them to come back with a strategy for dealing with the issue; not a solution, just a strategy. If they can’t, then perhaps you need to think about building a stronger team.

A fourth strategy is to establish and rigorously defend your boundaries. Set aside some time, even if it’s just half an hour each day, when you turn off the mobile phone and let the calls go to voicemail. If you start getting drawn into something ‘urgent’, take a step back and ask yourself, “What is the best use of my time right now? How important is this today? How important will it be three months and six months down the road?” If you do have to focus on a fire-fighting task, set limits on how much time you will devote to it and stick to them. You have to vigorously protect your boundaries. No one else will.

Finally, think hard about whether you are part of the problem or part of the solution. Are you unnecessarily driving the people who work for you into a fire-fighting mode? In many organizations, the real rules of the game are such that people are rewarded for solving problems and not for preventing them.

The team at Actuate Business Consulting, a knowledge-based management consulting firm in India, believes that it’s particularly difficult for leaders making transitions into new roles because there is so much to learn and do – but it does afflict most managers to some degree. The challenge of differentiating between urgent and important is real. The key is having a clarity with regard to priorities and not drive people into a fire-fighting mode.

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