Knowing The Difference Makes A Difference
If you’re like many business leaders, you start your day with a glance through your email inbox, scanning dozens of items demanding your attention. Chances are that as you go, you take note of the important items, the urgent items, the really urgent items, and the pants-on-fire emergencies that demand your immediate attention. You mentally prioritize these and file away the remaining messages for future attention – probably sometime in the 23rd century. Then you set to work tackling emergencies and urgent matters as quickly as you can.
Chances are good that tomorrow you’ll find yourself repeating the same steps. Same thing the day after, and the day after that, on into infinity, while you wish to yourself that someday the urgent matters would cease to exist.
Well, maybe they can. And maybe all you need to do to make it happen is change the way you look at important matters versus urgent ones – and then put the important ones first. The first step is to correctly distinguish between the two.
So how do you tell the difference between important issues and urgent ones? Important matters almost always have at least one – and often, all three – of the following characteristics:
- A deadline
- A price tag
- The possibility of emotional disaster in the event of a bad outcome.
Do urgent issues also involve these things? Of course – magnified and intensified many times over. So what are the unique characteristics of an urgent matter?
An urgent matter is an important matter that has been inadequately or improperly addressed.
Guess what happens when your entire day, week, or month becomes consumed by resolving urgent issues? Important issues go unaddressed – creating the next crop of urgent ones. For a person or a company to succeed to their full potential, this vicious cycle has to be interrupted; at some point, the important has to take priority in order for the pipeline of pants-on-fire urgency to be shut off.
Throughout my long career in marketing, I’ve had dozens of opportunities to see this principle in action first hand – and usually to see the unhappy results when business leaders failed to acknowledge or accommodate it. In an ad or marketing agency context, the scenario repeats itself almost daily; a current or prospective client finds themselves hemorrhaging customers, profits, or market share and comes through the door praying for a miraculous turnaround. Meanwhile, chances are that they haven’t taken the most basic steps towards resolving the problem –the important tasks needed:
- Identifying the goal
- Establishing a business strategy to reach it
- Establishing the benchmarks for success
- Creating a timeline
- Codifying business and resource needs
- Determining accountability and responsibility
- Establishing a budget
At this point, all important matters have become urgent ones. What happens next? The agency – if it’s a good one – tries to step in and clarify each of these as best it can, as it must do before it can even start the real work of creating and delivering a marketing program. Sometimes this approach works, in spite of itself. All too often, it doesn’t.
The rules in an ad or marketing environment extend to the rest of the business world, and to everyday life as well – and really, they’re pretty simple. Deal with the important things first, before time becomes your enemy. Establish plans, strategies, procedures, budgets proactively rather than reactively. Study for the big exam weeks in advance, rather than waiting until the night before. Stop eating so much junk food now, rather than waiting until you’re diabetic or have heart disease. In all these cases, you’ll be taking care of most of your “urgent” problems without even trying – because you’ll be preventing them from arising in the first place.
Of course, even though we pay lip service to things like planning ahead and being proactive, they run counter to our impulses. Ours is an urgency-driven culture, based on immediate gratification. We’re all about just-in-time manufacturing, same-day shipping, and thirty-minute pizza delivery guarantees. We’re not so big on paying attention to the deferred penalties that an urgency-driven lifestyle imposes on us, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. And urgency is self-reinforcing; we wind up surrounded by people who are running as hard and fast as we are to keep up with their “urgent” issues. When we find ourselves doing something different, it can even feel a little uncomfortable.
But as the saying goes; feel the fear – and do it anyway. Sure, there will always be some urgent issues. No person, company or system is absolutely perfect. Emergencies will crop up – but they should be the exception, rather than the rule. When they do, handle them swiftly and efficiently as possible without taking your eye off the ball; dealing with the important matters waiting for your attention.
Shifting priorities and shifting gears can make for major changes in the way your business and your life operate. These changes can be magnified many times when the example is set from the top down in an organization, and when the decision is made to create a company culture where important things come first. Suddenly, the business operates more smoothly. Workplace stress and friction are reduced. Employee turnover decreases. Since planning, budgeting, strategizing, and resource gathering are done in advance rather than on the fly, the company becomes more nimble and adaptable – and successful. And you might just find that the morning ritual of scrolling through your inbox becomes a lot more pleasant.