What’s urgent versus what’s important. It seems to be an ever-increasing problem of modern life — we have business-critical problems to work on, but all these fucking interruptions keep popping up.
And, in the name of efficiency, we’ve continued to erode the friction other people experience when making claims on our time. I have long called email “a task management system with third-party write privileges” (parse that shit out, it makes sense) and now we have tools like Calendly that literally allow people to schedule meetings without our approval. Remember when that was only an occupational hazard of the enterprise?
Over the last few weeks, a number of my CEOs have been complaining to me that they feel like they’re doing more and more work, yet falling further and further behind. And now, Ima get all coachy and quote a former United States President:
“What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.”
Holy shit. It must be important. Eric fucked with the font and everything!
Dwight D. Eisenhower said that back in 1954 in speech to the Second Assembly of the World Council of Churches (yeah, I *totally* looked that up). It has since become known as the Eisenhower Decision Matrix, and you should really consider making it a part of your daily thought process (here’s a badass article about it).
You can break the matrix down into four categories:
- Important and Urgent. These are crises, problems or deadlines. Things like an upcoming board meeting you need to prepare for or a family emergency. Sometimes, good planning can help prevent the important things from becoming urgent (see category two), but sometimes, shit just hits the fan.
- Important but Not Urgent. These are planned tasks and activities that don’t have a pressing deadline, such as taking a class to improve your skills or planning for the future. Ideally, we spend most of our time in this category.
- Not Important but Urgent. This is where interruptions come in. A text message we feel like we need to respond to immediately, or the vast majority of our email inbox. They might feel important, but they’re really not helping you achieve any long-term goals.
- Not Important and Not Urgent. Art of Manliness calls this category “dicking around,” and well, that seems on-brand here too. This is watching TV or YouTube videos or playing sudoku on your phone. You can’t (and shouldn’t) eliminate these activities entirely, but you’re hopefully not spending all or even most of your time here.
If you’re like most people, you’re probably living far too much in category three — filling your time responding to people because, well, that’s what we’re supposed to do, right? People ask for our time and we give it. I had one client tell me he recently spent five hours responding to inbound orders for something he can’t produce for at least three months, instead of working on a pressing hire (who incidentally would be responsible for responding to those same inbound orders).
He’s a smart guy. And too fucking polite for his own good. Sometimes he just needs to let the emails and calls go unanswered. Sometimes we all do.
Unfortunately, at least to my knowledge, is there’s no kind way of not answering emails. “Hey, dude, I love you but you’re just not important enough right now,” is a shit thing to express, even if it’s true in the grand scheme of our lives. Hit me up if you have a graceful way of deferring inbound requests for time and attention. And in the meantime, get used to being a clumsy oaf if you have to, because most of those requests shouldn’t be a priority in your day.
But more than allowing distractions to take up our time because we feel like they should, it’s also important to recognize that often, distractions are easier. The important things are often the big things, and we like to put those off. So what’s worth talking about beyond just the decision matrix is how to schedule and work on the big things.
For me, I use my calendar for everything. I’m not a fan of to-do lists for the same reason I’m not a fan of email — they often are organized by the “last in, first out” principle. I rarely look at a to-do list and think about what’s most important, but I do think about what just got added or what’s easiest.
So instead, anything that I need to get done goes on my calendar. I put tasks in my calendar in 30-minute blocks, even if it won’t take anywhere close to half an hour. It might only take me 10 minutes to call and schedule an appointment, but if it’s something important that needs to get done, I’m going to put it in the calendar. And once it’s done, not only is something important crossed off the list, but I have 20 minutes left over for email or playing sudoku on my phone. If I schedule and accomplish three to five important things a day, that’s 15-25 important things done per week. That’s material.
A lot of times, important things can’t get done in just 30 minutes, or even in four or five hours. In those cases, I try to break the tasks up and apply the longest maximum task strategy. No more than half an hour for each task is the rule that runs my life. This is psychologically important for a couple of reasons.
First, when you see a four-hour task in your calendar, it feels like climbing Mount Everest. Your natural instinct is to run away and start working on easy tasks like email. Or browsing the web. So breaking up tasks makes them feel smaller and more manageable. Additionally, when you put a four-hour task in your calendar, you’re basically saying “I have no fucking clue what is involved in this task, so I’m just going to block off an obscene amount of time and cross my fingers.” Breaking big tasks into small tasks means that you actually understand what’s required to do the work.
If you’re doing it right, your calendar will look just as insane as mine. Any given week, I have four or five hours that aren’t scheduled in advance. As a result, I don’t get interrupted at all during the day. It’s planned out that way for weeks.
Let’s take a look at my calendar right now for the week of April 9th. I can meet with you Monday at 10a, noon or 3p. I’m free 10a on Tuesday and 2p on Thursday (and these will both be gone by the start of that week). I’m free from 10a to 1p on Friday. That’s it.
Maybe that sounds overscheduled. Maybe that sounds insane. But if I’m doing it right, it means I don’t have more than five or six hours a week of ad hoc shit. And eventually, you (and everyone around you) will get used to it.
Don’t believe me? On March 3rd, I got a pretty strong email from a friend about my “firing people” blog post. I didn’t get to respond to her for 10 days, which bummed me out, but I had some important work to finish. I finally emailed her back, apologizing for the long delay and responding to her comments. She promptly wrote back, “At first I thought I may have put you off, but then I remembered who I was writing to, and that gave me more hope.”
Seems like people have figured out who I am at this point.
— Eric Marcoullier
I admit I talk a big game at times. I have been putting off taxes for WEEKS now, even though I keep scheduling it in my calendar as two 30-minute blocks. Frankly, I need some accountability in my life. I need a coach 🙂
If you need some accountability in your business life, along with startup coaching and best practices specifically tailored for your company, then let’s chat. You can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or check out my coaching web site at www.marcoullier.com.