Urgent Versus Important: Playing Corporate Whack-a-Mole

“Any emails that contain the words ‘important’ or ‘urgent’ never are, and annoy me to the point of not replying out of principle.” ~ Markus Persson

You know the feeling.

You’ve overcome your procrastination… You’re fed and hydrated… You’ve put your social media well out of arm’s reach…

You are about to start that important piece of strategy development work that you’ve been putting off for two weeks.

Urgent Versus Important

Then your boss pops her head out of her office door and says, “hey – there’s something urgent I need you to do…”

What do you do?

Effectively, you only have four options here, each with different levels of difficult. And different levels of risk. You can:

  • Agree
  • Negotiate constraints
  • Decline
  • Agree, but continue with your work anyway

What does the theory say?

All the productivity theory I’ve read says this is easy. You draw up a two by two matrix with urgency on one axis, and importance on the other. You plot the various tasks you have on your plate somewhere on these two axes, and voila!

Don’t do things that aren’t high on importance, and obviously start with those that are urgent and important. Anything that’s neither urgent nor important should be ignored completely, and so should the urgent but not important.Urgent Versus Important

But there’s a problem with this deceptively simple tool.

Both urgency and importance are subjective and relative. This means that something that’s ultra important to you might not be to someone else. And something that is important and urgent to your boss might seem trivial and irrelevant to you.

This is the source of a phenomenal number of workplace tensions.

Why?  Because too often, nobody is actually communicating their perspective effectively, so everyone thinks their view is ‘right’ and can’t understand why nobody else seems to be applying the same urgency or importance to their ‘major’ issues.

In the Urgent Versus Important Paradigm, How Do Your Options Stack Up?

Say Yes

Your first option – to say yes – works on one level. It keeps your boss happy.

But if you always play this game you will eventually start to feel that you are undervalued, because your work is receiving the attention it deserves. And ultimately you will start to feel like you are stuck in a game of corporate ‘whack-a-mole’ where as soon as you knock one thing on the head, another task pops up from where you least expect it.

Eventually, you’ll start to feel stressed.

Negotiate Constraints

This is probably my favourite of the four options – but it isn’t the easiest. If your boss is particularly stressed or pressured, your attempt to negotiate could backfire.

However, it is important that you learn how to do this tactfully.

My personal favourite approach is: “Absolutely. I’ll do that right away. It will mean that the report you asked for yesterday will be delayed by two days though – I hope that’s OK.”

The trouble with this approach (other than the risk you appear disagreeable) is that your work might not all be on your boss’s agenda.  For example, it might be reporting that another team needs, or it might even be from one of your boss’s peers or someone more senior. Your boss may not care if that work is delayed… but the person who commissioned it might – and that might be worse.


This is a tough call. But there are certain circumstances where it works.

Urgent Versus Important

Ideally, you also propose an alternative solution: “I can’t do that right now, but I could do it at 2.00pm tomorrow. If it’s more urgent than that, would you like me to ask Megan to do it? I know she’s a real whiz with spreadsheets.”

Just remember that the more stressed and pressured someone is feeling, the less they want options… Our ability to make decisions gets negatively impacted by our physiological stress response.

Say Yes, But Continue With Your Work Anyway

To be honest, I’ve never seen this work. You might get away with it if you’re super fast, and get your work and your boss’s work done in the required timeframe, but you might also be left with a major performance issue on your hands.

If, on the other hand, you do know that Megan is a real whiz with spreadsheets, and you continue with your work, and Megan completes your boss’s work (to the standard that you would have done it or better) you might just get away with it.

Don’t take credit for the work though – only the effective delegation. Taking credit for someone else’s work is a bad thing to do – and isn’t what leaders do.

Are There No Other Options?

You might have noticed that none of these options are great.

You get stressed, or you get in trouble (maybe even fired), or you could end up looking like a jerk… Not ideal.

Of all these outcomes, though, one of them is entirely within your control…

Believe it or not, it’s the ‘stress option’.

No matter how senior you are, there is always someone whose priorities outrank yours. Even when you are the Chief Executive, you still work for someone… Your Board, your investors, even your customers. If you’re a solopreneur – it could be your significant other.

So rather than try and find a scenario where only your opinion of what’s urgent and important counts, instead, reframe the question completely.

The One Thing…

Gary Keller and Jay Papasan have written a great book called The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results.

In it, they outline the importance of focusing on one thing at a time. And not just any one thing – but the most important thing.

But didn’t we just agree that your important thing might not be someone else’s? Yes, we did.

So here’s the thing. Keller and Papasan outline a single question that works at both a macro and a micro level.  When asked at the macro- level, the question refers to your life’s purpose, and how you might get there. But at the micro- level, the question can help you figure out what to do amongst a range of less than attractive options.

“There can only be one most important thing. Many things may be important, but only one can be the most important.” ~ Ross Garber

Provided you have a sense of what your medium- and/or long-term goals are, the question helps you figure out exactly what to do next, provided you allow yourself the ‘time’ the hear the answer.

Urgent Versus Important

Think about it for a moment, now the most important thing might be doing what your boss has asked – you have new information. If being in your boss’s good-books is important to your medium-term objectives, doing this thing now may even mean you don’t have to do something else…

A little Mental Magic…

Now the astute among you (yes, that’s you) will have noticed that you still have to do the thing, and your own important task hasn’t magically gone away. But do you notice what has magically gone away?

Your stress.

Because you know what the most important thing is, and that’s exactly what you’re doing, you no longer feel so stressed.

You’re welcome!


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