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Importance vs. Urgency: The Key to Optimal Prioritization

Priority list

No matter what type of assistant role you are in, an essential skill to have is being able to prioritize your to-do list.

You will have occasional moments when you will be told that a specific task is your top priority and to put everything else on hold, but you will have many more moments that will not be quite as clear.

In order to prioritize correctly, it is essential to understand the difference between importance and urgency.

Something that is important is defined as being "of much or great significance or consequence," "entitled to more than ordinary consideration or notice," "prominent" and "of considerable influence or authority" (source: Basically, items of importance on your to-do list have value tied to them. They could be tasks assigned from someone that is a priority or hold considerable weight to the person you support, their organization or household.

Something that is urgent is defined as "compelling or requiring immediate action or attention; imperative; pressing" (source: Items on your to-do list that are urgent are time-sensitive. Usually, the way urgent items are communicated are indicators that they are tasks that require immediate action, such as "Stop everything!" or "as soon as possible."

Items that are important can also be urgent or can become urgent if you let them slide too long, but the two adjectives are very different. Below is Stephen Covey‘s Time Management Matrix that I came across on SAE Magazine which is a great visual to help illustrate my point:

Time management matrix

As you see above, urgency and importance can be separate or overlap at times. If you are ever unclear about what category your task falls into, here's some helpful clarifying questions to ask yourself or the person who assigned it to you:

  • Who assigned this to me?

  • What is the task exactly?

  • What is the deadline?

  • How much time does the task require?

  • Is the deadline flexible?

  • Is there someone who can assist me with getting the task done?

At the end of the day, priorities are really just judgment calls. Do the best you can to answer the above questions in order to determine where the task needs to be arranged on your to-do list. Taking the time to make these judgment calls will help ensure you are spending your time as wisely as possible.

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