Urgent, but not important

The concept is simple: most of the urgent things on our list are actually not so important to us.

President Dwight Eisenhower famously said that "what is important is seldom urgent, and what is urgent is seldom important." It was a profound insight. Management consultants have taken this concept and written books and created seminars to help improve our productivity and navigate our to-do lists.

Ike’s concept is simple: most of the urgent things on our list are actually not so important to us. They’re usually more important to someone else. Yet these urgent tasks often block us from getting to things that are truly essential.

Ike’s quote brings back an early, painful career memory. I was the newly minted director of corporate comms at Nissan North America, and eager to establish myself. My to-do list was oppressive. In addition to my departmental objectives, I longed to be in every important meeting. I wanted to establish a reputation for being collaborative, responsive, and reliable.

So when the director of distribution reached out one day, I eagerly took his call. "Don," he began, "you may not be aware, but we’ve had a number of hail storms in Texas that have damaged the cars coming through the port at Houston."

"No," I said, "I was not aware of this."

"My guys have built a hail net over our staging area, and now the cars are no longer getting damaged," he added.

Great, I thought, but why are you calling me about this?

"I was hoping that maybe you could ‘PR’ this for us. Maybe write up a news release and get some coverage in Automotive News. I was hoping we could get it in next week’s issue."

I couldn’t believe he was serious. A PR campaign on a hail net? Who could possibly be interested in that?

"Sure," I heard myself say, "give me the details and we’ll see what we can do."

My training as a PR account executive kicked in, and I wanted to please this internal customer. Intellectually, I knew this was not a good use of company resources or time. And it was certainly not important to me or my team. But it was important to him, so I added it to my list.

Looking back, this exercise reflected my immaturity as a manager. I should have professionally and politely declined the request. But I was young and afraid of disappointing a member of management. So I went to work on the hail net story.

This memory came back when a friend called me to meet for drinks last week. He was in Los Angeles on a quick trip, and as we sipped our beers, he explained that his visit was a last-minute decision he had agonized over.

"I had back-to-back meetings this week at headquarters and really didn’t want to leave the office," he said. "I could have done the LA meeting by phone, but I ultimately decided it was important to be here in person, so I cleared the calendar and caught a flight."

"What was the meeting?" I asked.

"It was a discussion to sign off on our corporate positioning, messaging and ad campaign, and it was with our CEO, our CFO and our CMO."

Eisenhower would agree that my friend made the right call. What’s interesting to me, though, is that he even considered not attending the meeting. But I understood his hesitation. After all, he had a week of urgent tasks eating up his calendar back home. And every one of those tasks was important, to someone else.  

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