Skip to main content

Management How to keep the focus on important work when the urgent task intervenes

Dwight D. Eisenhower tried to focus his day on what’s important rather than what’s urgent, leaving a legacy of leadership that included not just D-Day and his acts as U.S. president but also a time-management matrix that clarifies those two factors.

But most of us fail his test. At the end of the day, we have squandered time on what’s urgent, scrambling to handle deadline-driven tasks. “A paradox many people face is that our most meaningful tasks are less likely to have deadlines than tasks that are relatively unimportant,” clinical psychologist turned author Alice Boyes writes in Harvard Business Review.

If you’re not even sure what’s important any more, she gives some hints. It might relate to acting on your values, such as volunteering or spending more time with your children; seeking greater public recognition by getting invited to sit on panels; improving vital skills, or averting disasters by scheduling a checkup with your doctor or creating a crisis management protocol at work. But those priorities slip to the back of your mind while you tackle low-importance but time-specific tasks such as clearing out your e-mail inbox or booking a room for next month’s convention.

Story continues below advertisement

Here are some tips that Ms. Boyes provides to right the balance:

  • Schedule important tasks and give yourself far more time than you need: Research shows that scheduling dramatically increases the chances a task will be done. Keep in mind that unfamiliar but important tasks often have a learning curve that makes it hard to predict how much time they’ll take to complete. So allow extra time, just in case. And to not neglect that important task of personal care, she suggests setting aside a time slot each week during work hours for any appointments that crop up, like seeing a doctor. Most weeks, you won’t use it.
  • Isolate the most impactful elements of important tasks: Big tasks usually require you to chip away at them through incremental progress. When you have a goal that seems so lofty that you are inclined to put it off, consider a half-size version. Keep shrinking until it seems doable. “You might end up with a goal that’s one-fourth or one-tenth the size of what you initially considered but that’s more achievable – and once you start, you can always keep going,” Ms. Boyes writes.
  • Anticipate and manage anxiety: Many important tasks involve thinking about things that could go wrong. You need to expect that and manage the anxiety that arises, rather than avoid the tasks.
  • Spend less time on unimportant tasks: Pay attention to how time can slip away from you when you get too immersed in unimportant tasks. “You might sit down to proofread an employee’s report – but before you know it, you’ve spent an hour rewriting the whole thing. In the future, you might decide to limit yourself to making your three most important comments on any piece of work that’s fundamentally acceptable, or give yourself a time limit for how long you’ll spend providing notes,” she says.
  • Prioritize tasks that will reduce your number of urgent but unimportant tasks: Outsource, automate, batch small tasks, eliminate tasks, streamline your workflow, and create templates for recurring tasks. When sensible, make an investment of time once to set up a system that will save you time in the future.
  • Pay attention to what helps you see and track the big picture: When we’re stuck in the mire of unimportant tasks, we lose sight of what’s truly important. She finds when she’s travelling alone on an airplane she can get the mental space to see the big picture. Spreadsheets also help her see a bigger picture. Tracking time can be helpful, as well. Find what works for you.

And it doesn’t hurt to supplement that by starting to use the Eisenhower matrix with your to-do list, putting tasks into the four baskets: important and urgent, important but less urgent, less important but urgent, and unimportant and less urgent.

Try the idea exchange

The idea exchange is a quick and effective method to brainstorming that you may want to try. Consultant Paul Sloane sets out these steps on his blog:

  1. State the problem clearly.
  2. Give everyone two coloured cards or post-it notes – for example, one white and one pink.
  3. Ask them while working silently and individually to write down a sensible idea to solve the problem on the white card and a bizarre, crazy idea on the pink card.
  4. People then mill around and swap cards (without reading them) so that they end up with a white card and a pink card from two different people.
  5. Each person now has to combine the two ideas they have received. They “force fit” them together or adapt them in some way so that they now have a creative idea.
  6. People then work together in teams of four or five, sharing their new ideas; everyone is encouraged to support and build upon the ideas they hear.
  7. Each team selects its best idea. At this stage they can adapt or improve the idea in any way they see fit. They then present this idea back to the whole group.
  8. The whole group votes for the best ideas using agreed-upon criteria such as the desire for a solution that is effective, novel and appealing to customers.

“A key consideration is that the bizarre ideas have to be really bizarre in order to provoke and stimulate the people who receive them. Tame ideas will lead to bland suggestions, so ensure that participants understand that their bizarre ideas must be outrageous,” he adds.

Smart things to do when meeting people

Emotional intelligence expert Harvey Deutschendorf suggests on Fast Company doing these five smart things when meeting people for the first time:

  • Show genuine enthusiasm for meeting them, not laying it on too thick but also not too formal and terse.
  • Offer a compliment, if you can, based on what you know about the individual’s background or what you can quickly glean.
  • Ask at least two open-ended questions on something they are interested in to keep the conversation going, since people love to talk about things they enjoy.
  • Find something you share.
  • Say their name before you leave and commit key facts to memory.

Quick hits

  • When you reach an administrative assistant or secretary when phoning somebody, give your name immediately and your reason for calling, says author and speaker Danny Rubin. That avoids the assistant defensively asking, “May I ask who is calling?” to probe whether to put you through. Leading with your name is more impressive and quicker, with less tension.
  • There’s a gender gap in using vacation time: 56 per cent of men said they intend to use it fully this year in a recent survey, but only 48 per cent of women.
  • Halifax-based recruiter Gerald Walsh says you should decline to give your references before being interviewed, if possible. Otherwise those references could be called before you even know if you want the job, embarrassing you, particularly if those references are in your current workplace. Delaying also allows you to select the best references after you have learned more about the job during the interview process.
  • Research suggests that current sexual assault interventions to raise awareness, change attitudes and behaviours, and encourage bystanders to take a stand might be backfiring, according to an article in the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest. The initiatives focus on men in general but may be antagonizing the high-risk males who most need attention and act in contrarian fashion.
  • The productivity app Forest encourages you to focus. You set the timer and plant a small tree that shows on the screen. If you don’t use your phone in the period for focus you have selected, the plant will grow into a full tree. But if you leave the app to otherwise use the device, the plant will die.

We’ve launched a new weekly Careers newsletter. Sign up today.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Discussion loading ...

Cannabis pro newsletter