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Are you busy all the time but still feel unproductive?

I recently wrote about overcoming overwhelm using my teacher Martha Beck’s 3B’s: take each item on your to-do list and bag it (decide not to do it), barter it (have someone else do it for you while you do something for them), or better it (make it more fun).

This is a terrific tool for task management, but it doesn’t quite get at one of the common causes for feeling overwhelmed even when you manage to get a lot done: devoting all your energy to urgent tasks, while putting off work that is important.

Urgent v. Important

Gen. Dwight Eisenhower made famous the difference between urgent and important activities. (See the Eisenhower Box time management tool). Sometimes urgency and importance overlap. But more often than not, they can be distinguished.

The root of urgent is urge. Urge comes from the Latin urgere, meaning to press, push, drive, compel. When something is urgent, the consequences of doing it or not doing it are immediate. This time pressure creates an uncomfortable feeling in our body that only calms once we’ve done whatever it’s compelling us to do. That makes urges/urgent tasks powerful drivers of behavior and highly rewarding to resolve. Moreover, urgent tasks are often things we do for or with others, which adds a layer of social accountability to them and increases the stakes.

The root of important is the Latin portere, meaning to carry, and it has evolved to indicate weightiness, significance. Important things, then, are big picture activities that contribute to our meaning, purpose, and ambitions. They are seldom urgent and often solitary, so there is little of that uncomfortable feeling in the body that drives action. They can also be daunting. Important things are thus easily put off. But not without consequence! Once the ambition takes up residence in the mind, it demands attention and leaves you with a hollow feeling if it gets none.

Here are three ideas to make approaching important work easier.

Find Your Rhythm

When are you at your creative and energetic best? Early mornings? Evenings? Friday afternoons? Because it lacks the push of urgency, important work needs all the help it can get, so schedule it for those times when focus comes easily.

I have a friend who wrote her first novel from 4:00 – 6:00 in the morning, every day of the week before work, and another who wrote only Fridays and Saturdays, when she had childcare. I have a client who noticed he felt amazing and clear-headed after jogging, so now he takes lunchtime runs on Mondays and Wednesdays and follows it up with important work until 4 pm, when he re-engages with urgent tasks for an hour before going home.

It doesn’t have to be daily, but it does have to be scheduled.

Make It Sacred

Important work is about more than just getting something done. It serves your (or your company’s) higher purpose, so treat it with respect. How?

  • Be faithful. Show up for it, even when it’s inconvenient, even when you’re not in the mood. Do that often enough and you’ll begin to look forward to it, even crave it.
  • Use ritual. Ritual sets a thing apart from ordinary time. Use it to lead you into important work and facilitate creativity. You could start with deep breathing; begin and end with a prayer or intention; light a candle or infuse a unique essential oil blend; listen to special music. Experiment!

Processes Can Be Important, Too

Finally, the important isn’t always a product. Sometimes it’s a process, like the way you treat your customers or your children. In those cases, the important can masquerade as the urgent – the need to respond in a timely way to a customer or to your child’s call for help. But look more deeply. Those responses to ordinary urgencies add up over time to something important: a good relationship, a reputation for trustworthiness.

Both urgent and important activities matter. What we all need to feel productive and good about it is the right mix of urgent and important.

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