In life, there’s a big difference between ‘urgent’ and ‘important’

Jennifer O’Connell: I’m getting better at prioritising the truly irreplaceable stuff

If you’ve ever worked for a US multinational, Stephen Covey’s urgent-versus-important matrix is unlikely to have escaped your attention.

If not, you should know that Covey is the author of a book called The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, a best-seller beloved of, in the main, the moderately successful. Some of the seven habits could have been taken straight from his less well-known title, The 7 Annoying Phrases of Highly Irritating People ("Habit 6: Synergise – combine the strengths of people through positive teamwork.")

But there’s one that’s genuinely useful, and all you need is a piece of paper and a pen. Divide the paper into four boxes. In the top-left box, you write “urgent – important”. In the bottom-left box, you write “urgent – not important”. The top right is for “important – not urgent” and the bottom right is for “not important – not urgent”.

The thing about urgent stuff is that, if it's truly urgent, it tends to get done one way or another

Then you divide up your to-do list accordingly. In the top left you might put "meet that deadline" or, if you're Bono, "end poverty". The top right might be "create something you're not being paid for"; "kick a football with kids/the midweek wine habit"; "get fit/a pension/a will" or "have an existential crisis about whether this is really how you want to spend your life". The bottom left is mostly just "other people's urgent and important stuff". And the bottom right could be "telling someone on Facebook why they're wrong" or "eating the free cake in the kitchen". You get the picture.


Too much of my life lately has been spent over on the left-hand side of the quadrant. Deadlines screaming for attention in my head. Emails clamouring for a response. Calls demanding to be returned.

I’ve been letting other stuff slide. Stuff that’s important, but not quite urgent. A board game my son has been asking me to play. A lunch I’ve been meaning to organise with my mum. Friends I really want to catch up with, but can’t seem to find a day or night when I’m free to drive the two hours to see them. A thing involving words I’ve been tipping away at, but not frequently enough. A “sorry” I’ve been needing to say for way too long.

Very Silicon Valley

The quadrant is an achingly Silicon Valley tool, but it’s also a useful visual reminder that when you’re frantically juggling, and balls are flying in every direction, it’s all too easy to mistake “urgent” for “important”.

If you have a child of six or eight and you miss three months of his or her life, it's irreplaceable. You miss something"

The thing about urgent stuff is that, if it’s truly urgent, it tends to get done one way or another. If you don’t do it, someone else probably will. The important stuff, though, that’s different. You can’t outsource looking after your health or spending time with your children or having dinner with friends. A useful test, if you’re still not sure, is the question “Will I be kicking myself over this in 20 years’ time?” If you’ve got even a flicker of a doubt, it’s probably worth making time for.

I thought about this again recently when I read Louis Theroux's interview with David Attenborough in the Radio Times. Attenborough, a man who has already given so much to humanity, offered an insight into what it might be like to look back at the age of 91 on a career in which you have educated people about the planet, entertained them and made them root for the life of a baby iguana like they were rooting for Trump's impeachment. He said his only regret in life is that he had spent so much time away from his son and daughter when they were growing up. "If you have a child of six or eight and you miss three months of his or her life, it's irreplaceable. You miss something."

The screaming stops

The thing about getting older is, I think, you get better at prioritising the important, irreplaceable stuff. I’m not there yet.

But people like Attenborough who have spent most of their lives doing big, urgent and truly important things find themselves with a little more time to think about the less urgent, but no less important stuff they might have overlooked while they were busy saving the planet.

That’s one of the things I’m looking forward to about reaching the age of wisdom. Suddenly there isn’t so much screaming for your urgent attention, and you can find a silent space in your head to think clearly. Or maybe it’s simply that with age comes clarity. When you recognise time for the finite, diminishing resource that it is, “important” and “urgent” suddenly become the same thing.

Father’s Day seems to me to be as good a time as any to check in on that urgent-important matrix.

(This column was brought to you with the partial co-operation of my own parents, including my father, who as well as accomplishing lots of things of the urgent-important variety this week, managed to take a 10-year-old to the library, a three-year-old out shopping, shepherd five children under 12 in the park and do multiple school runs. Happy Father’s Day, Dad, and all the dads performing small but important acts of matrix-saving heroism.)