Do you find it hard to get through all the things on your to do list?

If you’re like most of us, you’re getting the urgent things done. Like getting that memo to your boss by 9am, meeting a project deadline for your client and showing up at the all-hands-on-deck meeting.

But are you getting to the things that aren’t urgent? Especially the ones that are important but not urgent?

The Important but not Urgent

“Important but not urgent” tasks are the easiest to put off until “later” when you’ll “have more time”. Things like building your network, paving the way for your next promotion, and investing in your professional development.

But big chunks of time don’t magically appear, so you’re essentially putting those important things off for a while… in some cases, indefinitely.

When you don’t attend to the “important but not urgent”, you put yourself and your career at risk. And if you wait for the important to become urgent, it’s often too late.

What’s important in your career and life is impossible to cram.

You can’t build your network at the last moment because relationships take time to build.

You’re unlikely to get a promotion if you haven’t taken the steps along the way to get key decision-makers to know who you are.

And you can’t perform at your best if you don’t take care of your health.

How to focus on the important (but not urgent)

To avoid the negative consequences of falling prey to what’s urgent, especially someone else’s urgent agenda, here are four steps you can take right now to turn things to your advantage.

1. Assess how you’re doing

The first step is to figure out where things stand in terms of your focus on the urgent versus the important.

A simple way is to make two lists side by side. On the left side of the page, write down all the urgent things you have to do. Anything with a deadline looming or that it’s your job to get done soon.

On the right side, write down the important things you’d like to focus on but aren’t urgent. Or at least not yet. This could be things related to your career and personal development, becoming a better leader, or building that all-important network, just to name a few.

Then step back and assess your lists. As you do this, I suggest you take a matter-of-fact approach and don’t get emotional about it. In particular, don’t judge yourself. Hardly anyone excels at focusing on the important but not urgent, so we’re aiming for progress not perfection.

What do you notice about the urgent list on the left versus the important (but not urgent) list on the right? Which one is longer? Which one is easier to get done?

If you keep a “to do” list, which of the important (but not urgent) items are already on your list and how long have they been there? Is there anything missing on either list that you’d like to add?

2. Decide what to focus on first

Taking a look at the important (but not urgent) list, you’ll probably have quite a few candidates that deserve some more attention. But while it’s tempting to take on several of the big, important items you’ve been putting off, it isn’t realistic.

This step is essential to set yourself up for success. Choose one important (but not urgent) item to focus on first. You can add others later but start with just one.

I recommend starting with an item that falls into one of the following three categories:

  • The thing that will most move the needle if you started working on it now. It could be something that delivers a positive outcome like building your network of senior relationships to get more career opportunities. Or it could be preventing a really bad outcome like managing your stress so you don’t burn out.
  • The thing you’re most worried about or that’s most bothering you. Addressing this first provides the benefit of releasing mental energy that’s been tied up in worry or frustration. Imagine how great it will feel to get all that energy back!
  • The most urgent of the important (but not urgent). If there’s something important that you can see will become urgent in the next 6-12 months, you can make a big difference by getting going now.

You’re the best judge of where to start. The important thing is to choose one and get going.

What are your top candidates, and which will you choose to focus on first?

3. Make it doable

Once you’ve identified your first important (but not urgent) item to focus on, it’s time to make it doable. Often those items are big and conceptual, like “work on my career”, “honor my relationships”, “get promoted” or “get in shape.”

They’re daunting to think about, hard to make time for and easy to put off. That’s why this step is about taking those “big rocks” (as Stephen Covey calls them) and chunking them down to smaller pieces that can fit into your normal daily life.

For example, one of my “important (but not urgent)” items is to honor my relationships and keep in touch with my network. The way I’ve chunked it down to something doable is to challenge myself to reach out to one person a day. That one step has made it simple, easy and even fun to work on my “big rock”.

How could you take your big important objective and break it down into small, doable steps or actions?

4. Work it into your daily routine

Now that you’ve got concrete, actionable steps the key is to find ways to work them into your daily routine. If you do a little each day, you’ll be amazed how much you can achieve.

In most cases, it’s not about creating big chunks of time but rather making better use of the time you have. For example, I tend to do my daily reaching out in the evening because it’s a nice “treat” for me toward the end of the day. Plus, that gives me all day to think of who to connect with.

What could you fit into the times when you’re commuting or waiting in a long line or early for an appointment? Better yet, what could you tack onto an existing daily habit or morning routine to make your action step procrastination-proof?

Focus on what’s important to you

Focusing on what’s important, even when it’s not urgent, is key to your long-term success personally and professionally.

So don’t let the urgent agenda of others keep you from prioritizing what matters most for you. Don’t risk the disappointment of looking back one day and realizing you’re miles away from where you wanted to be.

Instead, get in touch with what’s on your important (but not urgent) list, choose one thing to work on first, chunk it down into doable steps and do a little each day.

What are the important (but not urgent) things that could make a big difference in your life and how could you do just a little each day?

Leave a comment below and let me know.