Can you tell the difference between “urgent” and “important”?


What of the most common problems I had as an entrepreneur and as a manager in my startups was that early on I couldn’t tell the difference between urgent and important. Recruited serendipitously into the high tech startup world, a place I never dreamed of inhabiting, I was constantly anxious about failing. That anxiety lead to treating every request, whether overt or simply perceived, as urgent. I would drop everything else and attend to whatever seemed like it had to be done immediately. Finally due to sheer overload I realized that just because one of the founders requested I do something didn’t mean it was urgent. I started to evaluate demands on my time and start prioritizing those demands by what was truly important for the success of the company and my own success.

Once I started my own company and was a founder myself I started to see this issue crop up in my own employees. I realized that if I didn’t stamp it out it would cause real problems, so I began coaching my direct reports that just because I asked them to do something didn’t make it urgent. And that they needed to coach their teams in the same way. Startups can be frenetic and I found that freneticism kills productivity. It results in a lot of wasted energy and worse yet, serious mistakes made due to lack of forethought.

So the article Urgency bias is killing your productivity by Lila MacLellan on
Quartz at Work caught my attention. Meng Zhu, an associate professor of marketing at Johns Hopkins University’s Carey Business School, conducted a study of college students that showed people would opt for a task that was perceived as urgent over a non-urgent task with a higher reward. The study concluded that “Our brains are so drawn to urgency … that we choose objectively worse options over objectively better options,”

So how do you counter “urgency bias”? How to you prioritize the blizzard of tasks that you face every day in a startup? A tool credited to the President Eisenhower enables people to categorize their tasks.


As I wrote in another blog post, someone once said that the three most important words in the English language are, Wait a minute. So before you respond to that email, in fact before you even sit down in front of your computer, decide what’s important to accomplish that day. I started this practice when I was General Manager of Addison-Wesley’s Educational Software Division. A-W was an old-fashioned company where everyone showed up at work promptly at 9 a.m. and worked until 5 or 6. And meetings could start as early as 9 a.m. as well. So I got into the habit of getting into the office at 7:30. I knew that not only would there be no meetings, there would be no interruptions from staff. I would sit quietly in my office – yes we had offices in those days – and review my priorities, then would write by hand a list of tasks I needed to get done that day, in priority order. I sure wish I had the Eisenhower box then! Only once I had my day’s to do list did I boot up my PC to check my mail  to see if any message in my inbox would cause me to revise my priority list.

Professor Zhu suggests that managers can harness the urgency bias to work in their favor. By breaking large projects down into smaller tasks, each with its own urgent deadline, the team can be kept motivated over a long period of time.

Another interesting finding from professor Zhu’s research is that people who perceive themselves s as busy were more likely to select a task they they believed was urgent, just to get it over and done with.

The faster your startup is moving the more critical it becomes that the entire team carefully discerns the important from the urgent and acts accordingly. Whether you use the Eisenhower box or don’t turn on any of your devices in the morning before putting together your priority list of tasks, the first step is to recognize that just because a task appears urgent doesn’t make it important enough to hop to the top of your to do list.


Author: Mentorphile

Mentor, coach, and advisor to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. General manager with significant experience in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Focus on media and information. On founding team of four venture-backed companies. Currently Chairman of Popsleuth, Inc., maker of the Endorfyn app for keeping fans updated on new stuff from their favorite artists.

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