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Give important people an urgent free pass

Over the last week or so, I’ve challenged you, based on concepts championed by Stephen Covey in his books The 7 Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and First Things First, to focus on the important and urgent in how you manage your time.  The urgent will always be around and nagging at you, and some urgent matters are important and necessary to tend to.  It is valuable to remember that the unimportant urgent matters are only distractions.  While it’s fine to spend time on unimportant things, it’s not really productive time.  If you’re trying to maximize your time management, you should attempt to limit your time spent on unimportant matters, no matter how urgent they seem.

urgent free pass

An urgent free pass is an exception to the rules of urgent and important

Sometimes matters that would normally be considered unimportant in a business or work context take on a whole other meaning when a special or important person is involved.  The unimportant can suddenly become important when the right person, such as your spouse or child, asks for an urgent free pass.  The same is true in an office context when you’re dealing with your boss or other people in the company whose input or needs matter more than others.  Don’t be so rigid in your focusing on what you consider important that you lose track of important people.  Put relationship first by giving important people in your life an urgent free pass to bump their urgent matters to the top of your list.

Who in your life gets an urgent free pass?

Who is an important person to you who is worthy of an urgent free pass?  Most people would give their spouse and children an urgent free pass most of the time, and as I mentioned above, you would probably give your boss and other influential coworkers  a pass to place their urgent matter high on your list.  It can sometimes be very hard to stop what you are doing and sacrifice your productivity and your view of important things when someone else’s day blows up, but relationships are worth making sure you are taking care of other people with the occasional urgent free pass, even when it’s hard to let go of your own task list.

Here is a case in point:  while I was writing this article, my wife’s laptop shut down spontaneously.  She was in the midst of working on an important document, and in shutting down, her laptop didn’t give her any opportunity to save her work.  And after the computer rebooted, it appeared that there was no recovered or autosaved version of her two hours of work.   She brought her laptop to me as both an urgent and important matter to her, and because I love my wife and want the best for her, she is one of the people in this world who has an urgent free pass to make something both urgent and important to me.  In that particular moment, she was pounding on my “urgent” button to get my immediate help.  After I worked through a few moments of frustration that I had to put aside my writing, I commandeered her laptop to try to retrieve her hours of work (and ultimately failed at that task).

Put relationships first as you create functional but flexible boundaries to get things done

The reality is that in some moments, it is the right thing to let someone else’s urgent and important concern override your own.  The key is keeping your list of free passes short while keeping relationship on the forefront.  Of course, make sure you’re accomplishing what you personally need to be completing.  But if you’re setting good boundaries with people and technology, limiting your open door and the access of immediate notification from email, texts and phones, hopefully you’ll have enough margin in time and energy to help out the people around you who are important to you and also need help on an urgent matter.

To whom  (besides your spouse, kids and boss) do you give an urgent free pass?

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Limit technology distractions to focus on the important

In my last post about focusing on important over urgent, I wrote about choosing to focus on the important and not simply allowing the urgent to rule your time. These are concepts championed by Stephen Covey in his books The 7 Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and First Things First. Choosing the important over the urgent can be a very challenging process because the urgent always demands your attention, whether it is important or not. I noted that an open door in the workplace can serve as a great way to build team communication, but it can also end up inviting urgent matters that aren’t important in your immediate moment.

In the last post, I only discussed tips to help focus on important in the realm of the physically open office door, but we often allow less tangible doors to remain open in multiple areas of our lives, inviting several different types of distractions all at the same time.  We live in a world where we multitask with technology of all kinds, and if you’re not careful, you can fill your life with technology interruptions out of a desire to be accessible. If you limit technology distractions, you are sure to become more productive.

Limit technology distractions like email and texts


Fight the demands of the urgent and limit technology distractions

Technology isn’t bad.  I love technology, and I’m constantly using technology.  We all know, though, that overuse of technology can get in the way of productive time management.  The concept of focusing on the important and filtering the urgent comes into play with technology as well.  When you limit technology distractions, you’re filtering urgent notifications in order to focus your attention on what’s important.

We must make sure that urgent matters are actually important.  Nothing declares its urgency more than a telephone ringing, a text beeping, or an email notifying you of its need to be read.  I even find those little numbers on the corners of my iPhone app icons distractingly urgent.  I have an overwhelming desire to clear out all those little app badges to have a phone screen clear of notifiers.  But following through with that desire to clear out your phone notifications is catering to the urgent instead of actually focusing on the important.

When it comes down to it, allowing your email or phone to have unbridled access to you, interrupting you at any given moment, gives power to the urgency of the phone call or email message.  You must limit technology distractions from emails and phone calls when it’s time to get real work done.

Text messages are another urgent communication that are rarely actually important.  The challenge, especially in a work environment, is that you do occasionally get a call, email or text that is both important and urgent.  So how do we limit technology distractions while acknowledging the occasional important communique?

Beeps, rings and pop-ups demand attention even when they are not important

I encourage you to adjust the settings on your cell phone and your email (both computer and phone email application), even on your office phone, and if you’re really getting crazy, even limit the ringing of your home phone.  The more you limit technology distractions to interrupt your flow,  the more you will limit the urgency that comes with every email, text and call.  Instead, take responsibility for  determining day by day how much interruption you want.

My best suggestion is to turn off all notifications and then check each technology at set interval based on the likelihood of that they’ll have something important for you.  For example, I love texting but the texts are rarely actually important.   What would happen if I check my texts every 4 hours?  I would probably survive, and I would get more done.

My office emails, on the other hand, can sometimes involve important matters that are also urgent.  I’ve turned off noise and pop-up notification emails to limit technology distractions because I found that every ding and every pop-up felt urgent.  Instead, I try to check emails in 15 minute intervals.  But if I’m working on a project that requires real focus, I may completely close my email software until I’m finished.  One inbox notification could completely wipe out my focus on an important project, so sometimes it’s valuable to just shut email completely off and limit technology distractions to get the important work done.

limit technology distractions by choosing to let the telephone go to voicemailCan you forward your phone calls or put your telephone ringer on silent?  I have found that many, if not most, phone calls can wait.  In my life, rarely is a phone call both urgent and important.  Voicemail is wonderful technology because it takes the immediacy and urgency out of a phone call and allows me to prioritize it on my own time and in my own way.

Social media is rarely urgent or important

In the same way, checking social media must be done in a controlled manner.  Social media, for most people, is neither urgent nor important to their daily tasks.  As such, I would recommend social media consumption to breaks and moments where you’re allowing your brain to take a break from the important tasks of the day.

What are some techniques you use to limit technology distractions so you can focus on the important?



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Disconnect the urgent button to focus on important

Sometime it’s easy to forget the important things due to the immediacy of the urgent.  In his books The 7 Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and First Things First, Steven Covey presented a diagram that highlighted our need to focus on  important things and not only on urgent matters.  The chart below is adapted from the illustration Covey laid out in his books:

The Covey urgent important matrix highlights the need to focus on important

The Covey matrix reminds us to focus on important

In this matrix, the horizontal line through the middle is the key boundary.  Everything above that line is important for you to accomplish.   The items on the left are urgent and the items on the right are not quite as urgent.  The items below the horizontal line are not important.  The key thing so realize is that all items above the horizontal line are important to be completed, even if they aren’t urgent.  And your function, if you’re trying to be productive, is to focus on important.

Those items above the line are task items and goals to which you should ideally be giving all of your attention. The challenge is that any urgent item, important or not, easily trumps items that are not urgent.  Items on the left side of the vertical line — the urgent items — can easily seize all of your attention, even when they’re not important.   Giving your attention to something that’s unimportant simply because it’s urgent ends up being  a distraction and not a good use of time.

An open office door makes focus on important a challenging task

I work in an environment where we are generally expected to have an open door as much as possible.   Keeping the door open is a great avenue to build communication between teams and team members.   I’ve learned that, though, that keeping my door open is also an invitation to anyone and everyone to monopolize my attention with an issue they think it important or simply worth sharing.   The open door mindset is not necessarily bad when your function in the organization is to be a problem solver.  But sometimes when it’s time to focus on important and get something done, an open door can become a challenge and barrier to accomplishing the important tasks.

The open door policy distracts you with urgent matters and limits your focus on importantThe open door creates a situation where anything that anyone brings to you becomes urgent, whether or not it is truly important or necessary for you to give your attention.  These distractions override your attempts to focus on important.

People coming to your open office door are given permission to press an imaginary “urgent” button, bumping them to the front of your task list.  This imaginary “urgent” button can make it very difficult for you to focus and stay on task with what’s important to you.   This imaginary “urgent”  button overrides whatever you’re trying to accomplish, upgrading someone else’s matter to top priority on your list for at least a moment and giving them permission to displace your focus on important.

Don’t get me wrong.  It’s not their fault.  Whatever they bring to you is both important and urgent to them; otherwise, they wouldn’t be bringing it to you.  Don’t blame them for bringing it to you, because they’re hoping you’ll help solve a problem that is both important and urgent to them.  In the best case, they’re probably focusing on important in their own work, and you’re necessary to accomplishing their important task.  The challenge here is that it’s really not necessarily important and urgent for you to deal with that particular matter at that particular moment if it’s not important in your realm as well.

Find respectful ways to disconnect the “urgent” button

Sometimes you just have to close the door in order to get done those jobs that only you can accomplish.  You are under no obligation to grant access to your “urgent” button to any and every person in your workplace.    Instead, if you’re going to focus on important, you need to learn to look people square in the eye and kindly but directly say, “I can’t work on this right now.  Can we do this later?” But you have to ask it the right way; you must have a plan in mind.  When you ask someone if an issue can be addressed later, you should immediately offer an alternate time to address their question.

I challenge you to figure out respectful ways to disconnect your “urgent” button in order to focus on important tasks..  Remember that the person asking for your help believes that the problem is urgent and needs your attention.  By offering an alternative time or redirecting their urgent matter to another process of managing task requests, you’re acknowledging that it is both urgent and important to them.  But by deferring their urgent task, you are choosing to focus on important in your own life.  And making that choice for the important is a solid first step toward productivity.

What methods do you use to keep communication lines open but still focus on important tasks that you must accomplish?

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