I made the paradoxical point in my last few articles that urgency is superior to importance as a method for prioritizing, but that the urgency we give to a task is dependent on the importance that task has for us.
I also make the point that this is not a direct relationship. Something is not more urgent simply because it’s more important. Urgency is importance translated into a time scale that is appropriate for the task.
We’ve looked at how to allocate tasks their place on the urgent/not-urgent scale. Now it’s time to look at what importance is and how we can tell how important a particular task or project is.
The first point to make is the obvious one that what is important to one person may not be at all important to someone else and vice versa. There may of course be considerable overlap between people, particularly in matters of politics, environment and religion, but basically each person has their own individual set of interests, preferences and matters of concern.
So we are not trying to discover some abstract quality of “importance” that belongs inalienably to a task or project. What we are trying to discover is how important it is to us.
Faced with a question like “Which is more important, buying a new car or extending the house?”, how do we decide?
We can try all sorts of ways of quantifying this, but I would suggest that the simplest way is in terms of timescale, i.e.
“How long are we prepared to put up with the old car?”
“How long are we prepared to put up with the house the way it is?”
That will give you the answer of which to do first. And if the answer to either question is “Indefinitely”, then you can simply cross that project off your list.
This can be applied to all sorts of situations:
“How long do I want to stay in this job?”
“Should I call Aunt May sooner or later?
“When do I aim to get my next promotion?”
“When is the right time to start this report?”
“How much longer am I going to wait until I can play the guitar reasonably well?”
“How much longer am I going to put up with this not working properly?”
“When am I going to stop having a backlog of email?”
If the answer to any of these questions is “indefinitely”, “never” or “I don’t know yet”, then you can remove the project from your list for now.
Once you’ve made a commitment to a project it ceases to be a matter of importance because a commitment implies that you have committed yourself to doing the work involved. It then becomes a matter of relative urgency appropriate to the work. For example learning to play the guitar requires a daily effort. That tells you how urgent each practice session is. Calling Aunt May on the other hand is a single task (or possibly a weekly or monthly one) and that is a different degree of urgency. Both the guitar and calling Aunt May may only be appropriate at certain times of day, so they have a higher degree of urgency during those time and none at all at others.
It may seem odd to you that both the degree of importance and the degree of urgency should be expressed in terms of time for prioritizing purposes. But that is what prioritizing is all about: the order in which tasks are done.