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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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