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« Urgency and Importance | Main | Urgency: the natural way to prioritize? »

How Do We Tell How Urgent A Task Is?

It’s easy to tell how urgent a task is if we have the boss or a client on our back threatening dire things if it’s not completed by the deadline. But the majority of the tasks we do during the day are not like that. They don’t have precise deadlines and they are generally unsupervised by anyone except ourselves.

How urgent is it to check my email?

How urgent is it to write the next article on my blog?

How urgent is my daily exercise?

How urgent is it to repaint the dining room?

How urgent is it to call my aunt?

How urgent is it to start preparing for Christmas? (my wife has started already!)

How urgent is it to tidy my desk?

How urgent is it to start writing a book if the deadline is six months away?

How urgent is it to write the briefing papers for next month’s meeting?

If you start trying to prioritize by urgency you will find that you are faced with this kind of question over and over again. It’s here that one is tempted to fall back into prioritizing by importance: writing the book is more important than tidying my desk therefore I will write the book in preference to tidying my desk. The problem with that approach is that writing the book is going to continue to be more important than tidying my desk for the next six months, so I may end up with a very untidy desk.

The answer to the question “How do we tell how urgent a task is?” is that in the majority of cases we can’t. Some tasks have obvious negative consequences if we delay them like missing a bus or missing the next issue of the newspaper, but for most there is no “correct” degree of urgency.

The fact is that we have to allocate the urgency ourselves. So how urgent is checking our email? The answer to that will depend on whether we have a policy of checking our email once a day or three times a day or every time a new email arrives. That’s up to us. How urgent is repainting our dining room? That depends on how long we are prepared to put up with the existing decor. Again that’s up to us. How urgent is our daily exercise? That depends on whether we have a set time during the day or not. And - you guessed it - that’s up to us!

Reader Comments (9)

An interesting example of this is delegation. Having assigned work to someone, I don't know when he will come back looking for additional work. I've recently come to realize the advantage of being fully prepared for that event. It's much superior to being interrupted with a request I'm not prepared to answer. Thus it's valuable in this case to Plan the next work in advance of the Plan being required. In Mark's terms, there's a certain urgency to getting this ready.
January 28, 2012 at 5:17 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu
This discussion on urgency (including the prior post) has been very illuminating.

Let me see if I understand: we are to prioritize by urgency alone, and each item's urgency is up to us, so ... we are to prioritize by a ranking that is up to us? Though this could be made to sound circular, I think you are saying that we need to take responsibility for ranking by urgency and then stick to it, and presumably the Final Version is a scaffold for staying on track. Am I close?

In addition, for someone like me, it will be critical to understand when my plate is full and thus stop labeling additional items urgent until I have finished something. I recall you saying that the FV automatically adapts to one's work capacity and makes it clear when one is overloaded, so I am looking forward to seeing how that works.

Regarding AutoFocus and SuperFocus, I have now come to see that urgency has been my main trouble, if not *the* trouble. In SuperFocus, we write urgent items in Column Two, where we are forced to action them until finished, and in AutoFocus, we are to do urgent items now, regardless of where they are listed. For external deadlines, the urgency is always clear, but for all the tricky items you mention in this post, I have tended to (1) consider them not urgent since they have no specific deadline, or (2) suddenly consider them urgent when they are imminently due (in the words of an earlier contributor, when the "slack" has gone), leading to the dreaded state of deadline chasing, or (3) go entirely off-list, thinking of one thing after another that I feel like doing now, degenerating into long stretches of drifting. Though you have provided plenty of examples of proper urgency (such as reading another bit of War & Peace simply because you've decided to finish the book), the generalized concept has never stuck with me for long. Hopefully this discussion will begin to change that.

Finally, what I'd labeled my "resistance to dismissal" in the past was in fact the realization that something soon to be "urgent" (according to its proper meaning discussed in these last two posts) was listed on a page headed for dismissal. If I were to pick out the offending nearly-urgent items and put them into tomorrow's tickler file, that might solve the problem, leaving the rest of the page ready to be dismissed with no regrets. Another solution is to be sure and review that dismissed page promptly, but my review process has always been too erratic to inspire confidence in getting back to a dismissed page in a given amount of time, and I'm not likely to remember for very long that I've got to get back to page X by date Y for a review. That isn't any easier than directly remembering that I have to do task Z by date Y.

Still another solution is to have internalized this sense of urgency from the start, so that these nearly-urgent items actually stand out (because they need to be started), and the page is not facing dismissal at all, until later when it is properly stale. In other words, retraining the sense of urgency solves the problem.

I have a strong feeling that this urgency concept is going to be crucial yet very slippery and that I will require training wheels while others discuss their techniques for gracefully leaning into the turn. That is fine with me, as long as I learn it one way or another. I will be eagerly watching this topic!
January 28, 2012 at 7:01 | Registered CommenterBernie
Well, choices aren't as logical as we'd like to believe. This was one of Mark's main points some time ago, after his researches on neuroscience.

It used to be assumed that attitudes and values had to be changed before behavioural choices would change. My impression is that our understanding is now that if we change behaviour then attitude and value changes can sometimes follow. We now understand more of the "non-logical" but "predictably irrational" influences on choice:

What we see or hear immediately before we make the decision (cf Derren Brown's stage acts)

Loss aversion is generally a more powerful motivator than gain

Benefits now vs costs later (impulse vs planning)

The rare tends to be more highly valued than the common

Peer group conformity

Ease of effort

Social consequences

Competing choices

Smaller parts are more likely to be actioned than larger

I'd speculate that we choose what we believe would make us happiest at the time, given our mood and all the above factors. That's my definition of "standing out" - but it's best experienced rather than analysed, probably.
January 28, 2012 at 11:15 | Registered Commentermichael
<<we choose what we believe would make us happiest at the time, given our mood>>

I would agree, but I'd remove "make us happiest". Most people I know:

<<choose what (they) believe would make them (insert desired outcome), given their mood>>

Awash with feelings, we choose what gives us the most pleasure. Mmmmmm brownies. Which is a serious problem for heroin addicts, parents who are sleep deprived, unfulfilled cubicle workers, and most couples today.

I think Mark is alluding to a solution by encouraging principled thinking:

<<The answer to that will depend on whether we have a policy>>

S. Covey's 7 Habits tackles this within the 1st 3 Habits (The habits of Self Mastery):
1) Be Proactive 2) Begin with the End in Mind 3) Put First Things First

Easy to comprehend, much harder to do. My solution is accountability via coaching and therapy. I'd be curious to know how others - particularly if you didn't see this kind of thinking/living in your family of origin - stay true to their principles.
January 28, 2012 at 16:50 | Registered Commenteravrum
I'm guessing that this article is a hint (intentional or otherwise) that Mark has developed (or is developing) a straightforward heuristic that will create and maintain a list in order of degree of urgency, simply through the process of making one's choices and doing one's work. I am trying to imagine what a such a heuristic might look like. Regardless whether Mark is actually doing this, it's very fun and intriguing to think about it!!
January 29, 2012 at 5:28 | Registered CommenterSeraphim
I'm trying NOT to imagine what such a system would look like! The trouble is, if I come up with a scheme, I might be inclined to try it. That scheme likely won't work and this would derail my productivity.
January 29, 2012 at 14:50 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu
Mark, you wrote:
<< The answer to that will depend on whether we have a policy of checking our email once a day or three times a day or every time a new email arrives. That’s up to us. >>

Do you mean that we should assign an urgency to a certain task and muster the discipline of sticking to that policy?
January 29, 2012 at 15:27 | Registered CommenterRainer
Hmm: this is promising. We set up our own framework to drive the urgency. I'm intrigued.
January 29, 2012 at 15:51 | Unregistered Commenterwill

<< Do you mean that we should assign an urgency to a certain task and muster the discipline of sticking to that policy? >>

In terms of allocating urgency to a regularly occurring task, yes. You need some sort of trigger for a task. With email it's usually easiest to decide on x times a day, though it would I suppose be possible to say "I will deal with my email whenever there are x emails outstanding". You might also have policies like saying emails will be replied to within 24 hours.

Of course if you know that someone has sent you an urgent email and you are waiting for its arrival, then the urgency of that individual email will take priority over the urgency you give emails in general.
January 30, 2012 at 11:52 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

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