Too often our important-but-not-urgent tasks get put on the back burner… and never make it to the front burner. When you get busy with urgent tasks, you may feel pressured to finish those first before you can justify doing anything less urgent. But then when you finally catch a break, you may decide you need some downtime to rest and regenerate, so those not-urgent-and-not-important tasks fill in the time before the next outbreak of urgency. This pattern can continue for years with the important tasks always seeming just a few days away, but somehow they never reach the action phase.
These important tasks include things like setting goals, planning your future, finding a new relationship, learning new skills, improving your diet, beginning a new exercise program, starting a home-based business, or breaking an addiction. In the short-term they may not produce much benefit, but you can bet they’ll make a huge difference in the long run.
If you feel like you’re just spinning your wheels and not really getting anywhere in life, you’re probably getting sucked in by the urgent and delaying the important.
Pay yourself first
One solution to this problem is to “pay yourself first.” This expression is usually applied to money, but it can also be used with time. Recognize that if you want to make significant improvements in your life, you have to bite the bullet and carve out some time for yourself. This may require delaying urgent tasks by a day or two. But in most cases, what seems urgent in the moment just isn’t that important in the long run.
People can wait. The world isn’t going to come crashing down because you didn’t reply to an email the same hour it arrived. Your boss can wait. Your co-workers can wait. Your spouse can wait. Your kids can wait. Your bills can wait.
Yes, there may be penalties by causing everyone to wait. You may get yelled at. You may incur some late fees. But virtually all of that will be forgiven. Better to cause these minor transgressions than to satisfy everyone else while you grow increasingly resentful, forever regretting what might have been.
Schedule a personal appointment
A simple way to implement the pay yourself first mantra is to schedule an appointment with yourself, just as you’d schedule a dentist appointment. Pick a time and a place, and mark it on your calendar. If anyone tries to add anything on your plate during that time, just say, “Sorry, I can’t. I have an important appointment scheduled then. Can this wait a day or two?”
When you make an appointment with yourself, honor it. Show up, and do what you planned to do during that time. It’s better to reschedule someone else than it is to put your own life on hold.
Isn’t this approach selfish? Not really. Very often the important work we put off is precisely that which would provide the greatest benefit to others as well. If you improve your health and relationships, for instance, everyone around you benefits. If you create a new business or switch to a more meaningful career, you’ll create a lot more social value than if you remain stuck in a dead-end job. Denying what’s important to you only deprives others.
The 5-year test
When considering which urgent items to delay in order to carve out time for your personal appointments, use the 5-year test. Just ask yourself, “What difference will it make 5 years from now if I delay this urgent task?” You’ll often find that most seemingly urgent tasks will make little or no difference at all 5 years hence, even if you were to blow them off completely.
Now apply that same 5-year test to the important tasks you’d do during your scheduled personal appointments. What difference will those make in 5 years? Often the result is significant, and it’s this perspective that will help you say no to the urgent in order to secure time for the important. Those 5 years will pass no matter what you do, so it’s inevitable you’ll find yourself sitting on the back end.
When you look back from today to 5 years in the past, do you see that you’ve made massive progress in life? If not, then why not? Did you succumb to the urgent, or did you stay focused on the important? What will you commit to changing over the next 5 years that you didn’t do in the last 5?
You may think you’re doing people a favor by giving them a fast turnaround on urgent items. Please don’t kid yourself. Deep down you know it’s just a distraction, another outlet for procrastination. It may be socially acceptable to drown in urgent tasks, but if you want to live more consciously and enjoy a truly fulfilling life, that kind of thinking must be seen for what it is — a fear-based addiction to living far below your potential.
It can take a bit of courage to say no to genuine requests for your time in order to create enough space for the important. With practice you’ll get used to saying no, both to your own distractions and those coming from others. Your short-term delays may frustrate people at times — you may even frustrate yourself — but most people will forgive you. In fact, you’ll generally find that people respect your time much more once they realize you take it seriously, and this in turn will help boost your own self-respect.
A personal example
I’m in the fortunate position of being able to carve out a lot of time for myself today, especially since I’m self-employed. But that wasn’t always the case.
When I was in college, I took a required class in human-computer interaction (as part of my computer science degree), and one of the assignments was to design and conduct a test and then write a paper on it. The test part was a group project, but each student had to write their own papers. This project was worth 10% of our grade.
Due to my heavy class load, I felt like I had more assignments than I could handle. I estimated it would take about 10 hours to research and write the paper. I was already positioned to get an A in this class, and if I didn’t write the paper, I’d end up with an A-. On balance I figured that going from an A- to an A in one class simply wasn’t worth 10 hours of my time, especially when I looked at it from a 5-year perspective. In the long run, it just wasn’t going to matter.
I participated in the group portion of the project because I didn’t want my team members to suffer. We designed and conducted a test on using a simple gestural language to input commands to a PC. I think the test may have been inspired by the old Nintendo Power Glove (kudos to anyone who remembers it). But after the group work was done, I refused to write the paper. I told the professor my reasons for declining the assignment and that I accepted the consequences. He gave me a quizzical look, but he seemed to understand. I thought it best to tell him in advance, so he wouldn’t be left hanging waiting for me to turn it in. By declining to write the paper, I earned a zero on the whole project, even though I contributed to the group work. Sure enough I received an A- as my final grade in the class.
That was about 14 years ago. Do you think to this day anyone cares that I didn’t write that paper? The funny thing is that my refusal to do that assignment actually created more value than doing it because it gave me a good story, one that I can use to make a point. Had I actually written that paper, I can assure you that every word would have been long forgotten by now. But the story is actually worth something. With 14 years of hindsight, I definitely feel I made the right choice. I’m not seeing a lot of gestural language work on my plate these days.
I’m sure that paper seemed important to the professor and to the other students at the time, but for me it was merely urgent. School assignments can be valuable, but many are just busywork. Don’t let other people’s agendas influence your own without some conscious filtering.
Making time for the important is a commitment you must make for yourself. No one will do it for you. The natural tendency is for your time to be flooded with to-dos from others. Very little of it matters. Be ever vigilant to question where your time is going and what difference your efforts are making in the long run. It’s not always easy to do this, and it may sometimes feel like you’re swimming against the current, but with practice you’ll realize that the habit of dedicating time for the important aligns you with a more subtle current, one that flows in the direction of greater purpose, meaning, and contribution instead of just greater activity.