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« How Do We Tell How Urgent A Task Is? | Main | Reminder: Donations »
Thursday
Jan262012

Urgency: the natural way to prioritize?

Ever since Charles Hummel wrote his classic 1967 essay The Tyranny of the Urgent, urgency has had a bad press in the time management world. Received time management wisdom has long been that prioritizing should be by importance, with urgency as a side-show at best. We’re all by now familiar with Stephen Covey’s Four Quadrants, which gives Important two of the “good” quadrants while Urgent is only allowed one “good” quadrant and then only because it shares it with Important.

The questions I have are “Does Prioritizing by Urgency deserve its bad reputation?” and its corollary “Is Prioritizing by Importance all that it’s cracked up to be?

If you construct a To-Do list in which all the tasks relate to your commitments (and every to-do list should be constructed on that basis), then everything on that list ultimately has to be done. You have, in other words, to have the intention to meet the specifications that go with each of your commitments. If you don’t have that intention, it’s not a commitment. And if it’s not a commitment it shouldn’t be on your to-do list.

Having accepted that everything on your to-do list has to be done, then the easiest and most direct way of getting through the list would be a simple First In First Out method. You do the list in the order in which tasks get written on the list. Importance makes no difference to the order, because if everything has to be done everything is equally important.

Of course we all know that this FIFO method wouldn’t work, and the reason it wouldn’t work is because tasks have different degrees of urgency. Urgency is what makes it necessary for us to do one particular task before another regardless of where it’s written on the list.

Urgency is in fact the natural way to prioritize. We do things first because they need to be done first. The farmer sows the seed and later the crop appears. At one time sowing becomes urgent and at another reaping. There is no possible way of saying that sowing is more important than reaping or vice versa.

Why then does prioritizing by urgency have such a bad press? I think there are two reasons:

The first is that people tend to think of the degree of urgency a task has in terms of when the task needs to be finished, when in fact the urgency relates to when the task needs to be started. This misconception is one reason why Prioritizing by Urgency is so often equated with deadline-chasing.

The second is that in the complications of modern life people very rarely do actually prioritize by urgency. They only start to prioritize by urgency when their other methods, or lack of them, have failed. The result is the same as in the first reason: deadline-chasing.

Reader Comments (37)

The definition of urgency as "the things that need to be _started_ soonest" makes a great deal of sense. Often, I only realize something is urgent because I don't know how long it will necessarily take. I _do_ however know when the deadline is, so urgency ends up becoming deadline driven.

Can you share any thoughts about how you think about and manage urgency? When you write a given task down on your to-do list, do you stop and think about when it needs to be _started_, and choose column 1 or 2 on that basis? If so, how do you deal with tasks whose duration you don't know but whose deadline you do?
January 27, 2012 at 0:12 | Unregistered CommenterStever Robbins
+JMJ+

Very interesting point, Mark, one that is validated by my current work. You see, I work currently as a dialysis patient care technician, and this occupation is RULED by correctly starting the right task at the right moment. You see, patients have specific but varied lengths of time to do his or her dialysis treatment, and starting and ending treatment for patients are very time consuming and technically challenging, but there are three shifts of patients in a day to use the same dialysis machines. Therefore starting times are very crucial, or your schedule will fall apart. I am starting to see how my experience in dialysis can be used to help me in being more productive, which is why I have made this dictum:

"Know what you want; Prepare for what you want; Want what you want; Enjoy what you wanted."
January 27, 2012 at 0:20 | Registered Commenternuntym
Mark,

Is the Autofocus list a to-do list?
January 27, 2012 at 7:49 | Unregistered Commenterwill
Stever and Will:

I wasn't actually writing this in the context of Autofocus or Superfocus. I was writing it in the context of the Final Version.
January 27, 2012 at 9:43 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
This is a very good point, that simple re-framing to start rather than finish is important and useful. A couple of points:
- I agree only commitments should be on a todo list. You still need somewhere to record those things that you might like to do (what David Allen calls "Someday-Maybe"), but that does not have to be on the same list as commitments.
- It's difficult to see how those things you would like to do, and will do when you feel like it, fit in. Maybe they should not be on the todo list at all. This is different from things like improving skill on a musical instrument (if I'm honest I need to get that on a todo list to make sure i do the practice needed). It's more like reading, which is something I do voluntarily and will fill in gaps in time with reading, but don't feel it needs to be on a todo list. Not sure I'm expressing myself very well here, I hope people can understand.
January 27, 2012 at 9:55 | Unregistered CommenterKeith Collyer
Keith:

I'm not keen on Someday/Maybes being on the list, but I think there is a difference between a Someday/Maybe and something which you are genuinely trying to decide whether to do or not. In that case your commitment is to investigate the validity of the task/project and that can go on the list.

I don't have a problem with a "thing I would like to do and will do when I feel like it". Notice the words "will do". Again it's different from a Someday/Maybe because you have committed to doing it. The only question is "when?". What degree of urgency does it have? At the moment, zero. But when you feel like doing it, it becomes urgent.

Most people don't want to live their entire lives from getting up to going to bed off a to-do list, so unstructured activities like reading fit naturally into the down time.
January 27, 2012 at 10:06 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Thanks, Mark: I think you answered my question.

My definition of "urgent" would relate to the amount of slack in the plan. So if I have to spend an afternoon drafting a report that needs to be out for this weekend, it's urgent right this minute. If it needs to be out for next weekend, it isn't.

Generally, as the slack gets squeezed out, so does your room for manouevre, which means that risk goes up.

I loved the counter-intuitive advice in DIT to focus on the less urgent projects to prevent everything becoming urgent.

But if we are to be driven by urgency, I hope there will be a mechanism to trigger action while we still have enough slack. In fact, one measure of control could be a continuing increase in the amount of slack on all our tasks.

I'm sure that whatever finally arrives will be elegant and practical, so I'm not too concerned.
January 27, 2012 at 12:51 | Unregistered Commenterwill
Under "methods I don't recommend", Mark formerly had on the home page Prioritizing by Urgency:
"Ok, so we sometimes have real emergencies which need an immediate response. You will recognise these when they happen - you don’t need to sit down and allocate them a priority. But let’s face it, all your other “urgent priorities” are only urgent because you have left them to the last minute. And why have you left them to the last minute? - because you are prioritizing by urgency, that’s why!"

I gather this blog post represents a change in opinion, and also a change in focus: "urgent to start" is better than leaving something until it's urgent to finish.

I find the older advice more helpful, and the newer advice hard to grasp. In my work, very little is truly urgent. I focus on bigger stuff and delegate urgent things. It's quite impossible to qualify how urgent the rest is most of the time. I will pick whatever stands out as important to do now, though there are no deadlines. There is only questions of present value, and present readiness.
January 27, 2012 at 13:01 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu
will:

<< In fact, one measure of control could be a continuing increase in the amount of slack on all our tasks. >>

The essential thing is that you should prioritize by urgency alone and no use any other criteria. If you mix it with something else, like importance, then it doesn't work. If you do prioritize by urgency alone then the slack in the system will increase a lot. You really need to try it to appreciate it.
January 27, 2012 at 13:44 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Alan:

It's not so much that this blog post represents a change in opinion as that I've come to a greater understanding of the nature of urgency. The passage you quote shows that I was thinking of urgency in terms of "deadline chasing". Now I realise that you can avoid deadline chasing altogether if you use urgency properly.

I think when you are talking about your own work, there's a danger of confusing different meanings of the word "urgency". "Urgent" is something that needs doing soon, before most other things. "Degree of urgency" on the other hand is a scale that ranges from "Must be done this second" to "No need to get round to this ever".

Obviously your work has some degree of urgency above 0 or you wouldn't need to do it at all. When you say "I will pick whatever stands out as important to do now" the words "important to do now" describe the degree of urgency it has for you.

I remember advising a small firm once about time management. The was one secretary who worked for all four of the working partners. She had a real problem knowing how to prioritize her work between the partners. They usually gave no indication of when they wanted a piece of work done. So she had to guess what priority things were. This didn't work very well, as you can imagine.

So I said to the partners "When you give a piece of work to Lisa, just indicate when you want it done by."

One of the partners replied: "I don't mind when it's done".

So I said "Is it ok if Lisa takes a year to do it?"

The partner replied, "No, of course not!"

"So you do mind when it's done then?"

He got the point.
January 27, 2012 at 13:59 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Thanks, Mark.

If it is vitally important that you set your priorities by the degree of urgency and nothing else then the definition matters a lot. I haven't got it yet.

If, on the other hand, the Final Version uses a separate set of rules inspired by your latest idea of urgency, it really doesn't matter whether I understand the philosophical underpinnings or not. I just need to try it and watch in awe as everything swims into control.
January 27, 2012 at 14:15 | Unregistered Commenterwill
I would find extreme difficulty in the "when I want it done by" question. I only know I want this before that among comparable items, though I'd be unable to produce a total ordering over all items. In fact, it tends not to matter. There are a bunch of items that should be done soon, which only means they feel more pressing than other items. If something else arose, the entire lot could be ignored for quite a while. And so I do that bunch of items. All of them. In arbitrary order.

In fact the entire decision process is just "Pick something that seems important now", and not prioritizing at all.
January 27, 2012 at 14:19 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu
I agree: Focusing on when we need to start something is more useful than focusing on when we need to finish it. Add milestones, complete with extra days for unexpected interruptions, and I'm even happier.

My kids' school doesn't teach this. 10 different teachers so far, and none of them gave milestones in advance! They look at the kids' progress, tell some they're behind, then adjust the deadline to suit the kids. Nor do they give word-count. Quality is more important -- until you hand in 100 quality words and learn they wanted 500 words and 5 pictures.

I made my son plan his daily milestones in advance this month, since he had two projects at the same time. He asked the teacher if it looked okay to her (especially his plan for 9 paragraphs and 5 pictures). She'd never seen anyone do that before (including, I suspect, herself.)

We alternate who chooses how to plan his projects. On his months, he's slowly shifting from "When I feel like it" to something a bit better, and the busier the month the more planning he does. He even left 4 days for printer breakdowns this month, and proudly showed me how he left weekends empty and ensured he didn't have heavy loads for both projects on the same day!

I have a category between Someday-Maybe and Now. They stay on the current list, since I want to keep moving on them, but are the first to drop when life gets busy. I average 5 sessions a month on them. Slower than I'd like, but enough to make progress.
January 27, 2012 at 14:53 | Registered CommenterCricket
Reframing what urgency means sounds intriguing. One practical question: How do I determine the urgency of the start?
If I know how long it takes and have a deadline, I can calculate when I have to start at the latest. But constantly estimating the duration of every task and every project is just exhausting. And often I have no way of making a good estimate.

So, how do you work out the urgency of the start?
January 27, 2012 at 16:27 | Unregistered CommenterJens
This approach may make sense, but I hope it's not a key feature of the upcoming book. Redefining a common term like 'urgency' to mean something that it doesn't mean to most people is not a likely path to a best-seller. As just one example, I have been adding a 1st-priority task to my list almost every day, which is to exercise. I normally try to do it early, before work. The reason I'm doing this is that I have had some health problems, and regular exercise is keeping me healthier, without having to take more medicines or be on a more restrictive diet. If I didn't do this program, I might end up in Urgent Care (or a hospital's Emergency Room), which would be a truly urgent situation, like a deadline that was about to hit. So Mark may say that it is urgent that I do this exercise program, but most people would say I'm doing it because my health is important to me.
January 27, 2012 at 19:03 | Registered Commenterubi
I have recently begun keeping my todo lists soley based on this type of Urgency criteria. I have lists for Today, within a Week, within a Month and Later (more than a month/someday, maybe). I put items on each list depending on when they need to be STARTED (not completed). It gives me a dashboard for today and some context of the future.

Each is a closed list. If I finish (or, for some things, just start) everything on my Today list, I'm done. Or...I can look to the Week list to see if anything "stands out". For me, this gives better perspective than one long list. I know what I should be focusing on - and don't waste energy looking at the things I don't need to be worrying about (yet). It's simple/easy too...which I'm learning is more important for a system than I realized in the past.
January 27, 2012 at 19:09 | Registered CommenterScott Hutchins
Alan:

<< In fact the entire decision process is just "Pick something that seems important now", and not prioritizing at all. >>

It's interesting the way you put that. "Something that seems important now" sounds as if it's prioritizing by importance. But importance isn't something that just appears one moment and goes away the next.

What you actually mean, I suspect, is "something that it seems important to do now". That is a prioritization by urgency.
January 27, 2012 at 19:12 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Jens:

<< Reframing what urgency means sounds intriguing. >>

I don't know why you think that I've reframed what urgency means. All I thought I was doing was _reminding_ people that urgency relates to the start not the finish. Even as a schoolboy I knew that if I wanted to get my homework in by the deadline of tomorrow morning, I would have to miss watching the tv programme I really wanted to see, deadline this evening. (No video recorders in those days!)

<< One practical question: How do I determine the urgency of the start? >>

How have you been doing it up to now? Unless your work life so far has consisted solely of missed deadlines, you must have some idea of when you have to start a project in order to finish it on time. You don't need a new special technique. Just use your existing knowledge.
January 27, 2012 at 19:18 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
ubi:

<< Redefining a common term like 'urgency' to mean something that it doesn't mean to most people is not a likely path to a best-seller. >>

I'm afraid that I am completely unable to see how I have redefined "urgency". I have used it in its normal everyday sense, as understood by everyone.

<< As just one example, I have been adding a 1st-priority task to my list almost every day, which is to exercise. I normally try to do it early, before work. The reason I'm doing this is that I have had some health problems, and regular exercise is keeping me healthier, without having to take more medicines or be on a more restrictive diet. If I didn't do this program, I might end up in Urgent Care (or a hospital's Emergency Room), which would be a truly urgent situation, like a deadline that was about to hit. So Mark may say that it is urgent that I do this exercise program, but most people would say I'm doing it because my health is important to me. >>

No, you are really missing the point here. You have committed to doing the exercise programme because it is important. And the fact that you have committed to doing it is why you regard it as urgent to do the programme before work.

People make commitments because they are important to them, then they do the resulting work in order of urgency. I can't make it any clearer than that.
January 27, 2012 at 19:24 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Speaking only on the use of the word 'urgent':
"And the fact that you have committed to doing it is why you regard it as urgent to do the programme before work."

I would never say it's urgent to do the program before work. I would say it's important. Urgency is about whether and when consequences will follow if something is not done. Skipping exercise today will not have consequences long-term nor imminently, so it isn't called urgent. Regularly skipping exercise will have consequences.

"What you [Alan] actually mean, I suspect, is 'something that it seems important to do now'. That is a prioritization by urgency not by importance."

I agree with the first sentence. I agree with what you mean by the second sentence, but I feel awkward about the word urgency.
January 27, 2012 at 19:45 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu
Mark,

Thanks for clarifying. You summarized: "People make commitments because they are important to them, then they do the resulting work in order of urgency." This makes sense. I think what might seem objectionable to some, myself included, is that the term 'urgent' has a lot of negative stress-inducing connotations. A thesaurus gives these synonyms: acute, pressing, dire, desperate, critical, serious, grave, intense, crying, burning, compelling, extreme, exigent, high-priority, top-priority; life-and-death. None of these seems much better. So while I see your point, and it makes sense to order one's work in time to meet all deadlines, I would like to think of my work and life as not being driven constantly by a sense of urgency.
January 27, 2012 at 19:52 | Registered Commenterubi
Speaking on the concept:

I think there are two factors at play in decision making: the value of working on something, and the cost of not working on something now. For example, you need a sweater and will buy it, but it's a question of when. Buying a sweater now to keep warm, vs. buying a sweater later and being (slightly) cold for a while vs. buying when a sale comes on before the sale ends.

You may delay buying a sweater while other things are more important to work on. When that sale comes around, there still is no reason to rush and buy the sweater until you get more pressing things out of the way. But now the sale approaches an end, and we have a situation of urgency: Not buying the sweater now implies continued chilliness, AND loss of an opportunity to save money. It's that cut-off date which gives a sudden change in cost that provides urgency. Until then, everything has a constant cost or reward and you simply choose whatever has the greatest reward. It's those events that discontinuously change the value of work that override the normal importance equation.
January 27, 2012 at 20:01 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu
It's amazing how many 'urgent' calls and 'urgent' Client cases I get in my area of work that don't really turn out to be that urgent. But they still need to be engaged. Experience has generally shown me that after demonstrating a fast response things all of a sudden slow down and go quiet considerably. So I can relate well to what I think Mark is saying.
January 27, 2012 at 20:34 | Registered Commenterleon
ubi:

<< I would like to think of my work and life as not being driven constantly by a sense of urgency. >>

Well so would I. The entire point of what I am saying is that if you pay attention to urgency you avoid urgency becoming critical - and therefore don't need to be driven by a sense of urgency. If you deal with things in order of urgency then you avoid deadline chasing.
January 27, 2012 at 22:24 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Alan:

<< I would never say it's urgent to do the program before work. I would say it's important. >>

Well, I think you'd be wrong. If you had some extremely important project like developing a new vaccine against malaria, then if your were using importance as your criteria you would do that before you did your exercise, which is a task of lesser importance.

But if you are using urgency rather than importance as your criteria, then you would do the exercise first because you have allocated it that degree of urgency in spite of the fact that the other project is more important.

<< Urgency is about whether and when consequences will follow if something is not done. >