Urgent vs. Important Tasks: What’s the Difference? [+ Best Practices]


Part 1

The Difference Between Urgent and Important

Does it sound familiar? You get to work, turn on your computer, and a seemingly endless stream of emails welcomes you. You start replying to them, hoping to cross this task off your list as soon as possible and get on with your day. But, the second you feel like you’ve caught up, you receive an answer to a previous email, and you’re back to square one. Couple this with meetings, phone calls, and the actual work you need to accomplish, and it feels like you’re putting out one fire after another.

The fundamental approach to solving this vicious circle is to understand the difference between urgent tasks and important tasks. When you can do this you can employ the right strategies to make the most of your time and advance your goals, whether personal or professional.

  • Urgent Tasks:

    These are the tasks that require your immediate attention: phone calls, meetings, tasks with tight deadlines, and other issues that require you to take action quickly.

  • Important Tasks:

    These are the tasks that help advance long-term goals and complete serious projects. Usually we tend to put them aside and deal with the tasks that provide a rapid sense of accomplishment. Important tasks are not always urgent, so we’re more likely to postpone them in favor of those that require our immediate attention.

Although the distinction between the two seems pretty straightforward, most of us often confuse urgent for important. It’s an evolutionary trait that’s hard to shake off. Our ancestors often prioritized short-term gains over long-term strategies. Tending to their immediate needs such as finding food or protecting themselves against predators was more likely to improve their chances of survival.

The digital era we’re living in today isn’t making it easier for us to distinguish between urgent and important. Connected 24/7, we fail to see the distinction between what’s truly important and what’s trivial. This state of mind can have serious consequences on our productivity and ability to focus on the big picture. When everything needs to be #1, prioritizing becomes a burden.

How to Distinguish Urgent and Important: the Eisenhower Decision Matrix

One of the biggest challenges both managers and individuals face on a daily basis is learning how to prioritize their work efficiently. The good news is that there is already a system which allows you to prioritize tasks and decide what requires your focus and what could be postponed.

It’s called the Eisenhower’s Decision Principle, the matrix splits tasks into 4 categories:

1) urgent but not important tasks,

2) urgent and important,

3) important but not urgent,

4) not important and not urgent.

Part 2

How to Use Eisenhower’s Principle

  1. Urgent but Not Important Tasks

    These activities require your immediate attention but don’t help you achieve long-term goals. Most emails, text messages, and phone calls fall under this category. The problem with these tasks is that people often think that they are important.

    And it’s easy to see why.

    Most of them are tangible and have immediate results, giving you a false sense of accomplishment.

    But, here’s the hard truth: while you’re saying yes to every request that comes your way, thinking you’re accomplishing so much, you aren’t. You are, in fact sabotaging your progress, success and happiness.

  2. Important and Urgent Tasks

    These are the tasks that require your immediate attention. At the same time, these urgent crises and deadlines can also help you advance long-term goals and move projects forward.

  3. Important but Not Urgent

    These are the tasks that don’t have a pressing deadline but can help you accomplish your personal and professional goals. Acquiring a new skill, getting in shape or finding a hobby are all activities that can help us achieve success and live more fulfilling lives. Unfortunately, these are also the tasks that we tend to postpone in favor of activities we perceive as urgent.


  4. Tasks That Are Neither Urgent Nor Important

    More often than not, these activities are time wasters. They don’t require your immediate attention nor do they help you achieve your long-term goals. In fact, they often distract you from your mission.


    Let’s be honest!


    We’ve all found ourselves mindlessly scrolling through Facebook or reaching that weird part of YouTube and wasting time instead of focusing on what’s really important. Don’t get the idea wrong — this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t take a break and decompress after a day of hard work. Au contraire! Resting is essential to achieving success. You do need, however, to learn to limit the amount of time you’re wasting on non-urgent and non-important tasks.


    To prioritize tasks correctly, use this decision matrix to guide you and give #2 and #3 types the highest priority.