By standard measures, I’m someone who gets things done. I’ve used a planner for years, and it’s always filled with tasks, most of which I check off daily. I even handle things that aren’t on my list. For example, if while brushing my teeth I notice my bath towels are askew, I’ll pause to straighten them (embarrassing to admit, but vital for the purposes of this piece).
I observed this compulsive tidying a while ago, thanks to my reflection in the bathroom mirror, and was mortified. Why was I doing this? And what did it say about me?
I became more aware of other tendencies: wiping sticky fridge shelves mid-retrieval of food, or opening an e-newsletter when the reason I’d gotten on email was to verify a deadline. It appeared I do whole lot of what’s not truly necessary — or at least, what’s not truly necessary in the moment.
I’m not alone, and now I know why. The urge (pun intended) to do urgent-yet-unimportant stuff is common. There’s even a 2018 study showing as much: People are more likely to do unimportant tasks (activities with lesser payoffs) than important tasks (activities with better payoffs), when unimportant tasks seem like they need to be addressed right away (have “an illusion of expiration” or “spurious urgency,” the study says). In other words, I’m more likely to straighten towels than rebalance my retirement accounts.
“People behave as if pursuing an urgent task has its own appeal, independent of its objective consequence,” according to the researchers.
There’s a system for beating this. I’ve seen it credited to different people, dating all the way back to President Eisenhower. I learned about it in 2008 through fantastic life coach Martha Beck. Basically, you need to decide where your tasks fall in four combos of the urgent-important spectrum.
Here’s how to differentiate among demands so you can handle what matters and reach big goals:
Beck suggests writing down every single thing you should do, intend to do, want to do, hope to do, wish to do (keep going here) on notecards (I cut up pieces of paper). Don’t brush off this written part. In the future, it’s an excellent way to check how you fared in the elusive “important and not urgent” category.
Once you’re done scribbling with wild abandon, look at each notecard or paper scrap and assign it to one of the categories below. This part is subjective. It also can be contemplative. Be sure to consider your own needs — not the needs of others — even though much of what we do is tied to others. For example, speaking daily by phone to your mom/grown child/friend. Do you do this for yourself? For them? Both of you? Would a different frequency (more or less) serve you better?
Eventually, you might forget about this system. I sure had. But if you catch yourself spending time in ways that seem absurd, at least you know why and that there’s a legit way to fix it.
- Urgent and important
Action: Do it. Great example: Researching your health, dental, disability and other insurance options because selections are due tomorrow and will affect you until open enrollment next year (longer, if you have health issues but aren’t properly covered).
- Urgent but not important
Action: Avoid, and perhaps get someone else to do it. This category includes stuff we spend inordinate amounts of time on: checking social media, filing $5 rebates, sweeping floors, mowing lawns, checking emails with a low likelihood of usefulness. Strive to replace tasks you put here with tasks you put in the next category.
- Important but not urgent
Action: Do it, knowing it might take a while to see through to completion. This is the stuff you really want to do but never make time for. Getting rid of tasks in the categories above and below will help. If you’ve long wanted to visit Spain, start planning. Do you need to save money? Find friends to go with? Strategize time off?
- Not important and not urgent
Action: Don’t do it. If something screams “right now!” but isn’t important, forget about it. Like, for example, straightening towels.
Mitra Malek’s writes and edits content related to wellness, including for Yoga Journal, where she is a contributing editor. Connect at www.mitramalek.com.