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!