in Life Optimization

Urgent or Important? Proactive or Reactive?

I don’t recall which productivity guru introduced me to the axis of urgency and importance. Google tells me it was Stephen Covey, so I’ll go with that. But regardless of who it was, the exposure of this binary classification changed the way I worked – I started thinking about whether this was the most important thing to do, or if it was just the most pressing. Josh Waitzkin on a recent Tim Ferriss podcast, exposed another binary with two different qualifiers – proactive task versus reactive ones. One is what you do in response to something, whereas the other is undertaken of your own volition.

These four adjectives overlap into two categories, albeit imperfectly. Most proactive tasks are important, and most reactive ones are urgent, but not exclusively so. You could reactively pay an urgent rent bill, for instance, or proactively decide to step to one side rather than block an urgent punch to your face. Let’s run down them one by one.

Urgent vs Important

Urgent tasks are often referred to as firefighting. These are the daily needs that require your immediate attention – from making breakfast to responding to that ringing phone on the desk. If you ignore them, bad things will happen. They may not happen immediately, but if you ignore too many frivolities eventually big stuff will start to fail. (Don’t eat lunch and you’ll live, but too often and your health will suffer, etc). Your email inbox, deadlines, and looking good for your boss are all urgencies.

Most urgent tasks are not important in the big scheme of things, but many are integral building blocks to success. It is important to identify which tasks are which, but many people simply come in and tackle the urgent problems first because they are more pressing, at the expense of the important ones.

Important tasks are critical to the success of project. Ignoring them will be devastating eventually, but their cruciality may not be immediately visible. They might be things like paying rent (it’s not urgent until overdue, but very important) or working on refining a process you use everyday (you could keep using the old process no problem, but streamlining it would improve efficiency and save everyone’s time).

Important tasks often fall behind since they are not constantly reminding you to get them done ASAP, which hurts your goals. Many of them are passively urgent, lurking in the back of your mind saying “I should really get to that today” but you never find the time.

These two terms neatly split up your to-dos into halves that are integral to your plans, but do not hold equal weight. Focusing solely on the important would bring you forward but probably with a reputation for unreliability and carelessness, while focusing solely on the urgent would  have you running in place with the illusion of productivity, yet slowing sinking as innovation falls to the wayside.

Reactive vs Proactive

Another way of dividing up the to-dos is with the reactive/proactive divide. Nearly all urgent tasks are reactive – you do them in response to something happening to you. And while you can be proactive towards urgent things, the act of deciding to do something of your own impetus rather than as a result of someone else’s usually means you are doing something important to you.

Reactive tasks are things like responding to email, (which could be described as somebody else’s to-do list) paying bills, and answering the ringing phone calls. They’re relatively easy to do, and completing them makes you feel like you’re getting things done. But reactive tasks can never move you forward – they can only keep you in the same place.

It takes a proactive task – one made of your own accord -to move you forward. You decide you need to do something and then do it, regardless of the environment around you. Examples include storyboarding the overall design of a project, refining your operational process, writing for yourself, or recalibrating your goals as a result of recent findings. The ‘big stuff’. These things are more truly yours than anything you do as a response to an external stimuli, and as a result, are critical to your success rather than someone else’s. You do them because you think they should be done.

Yet so many people spent their days reacting to email and other urgent frivolities that invade their days, then go to bed feeling busy and productive. Such a person is never going to be fired, but they’re never going to get promoted either. Busy is not productive, just as urgent is not important.

You may know what these words mean, but have you ever stopped and considered the ramifications? Think about it – almost all of your life is reactive! You go to school to get a job because thats whats accepted to do. Most of the things you do, watch, read, and eat are because that’s what everyone else does, or just because it’s what is available. Even your friends are made reactively. You meet the people you do because they’re the ones that work with you, live nearby, or happen to do the same things you do. Just look at how many people don’t stay in touch with their friends from high school. It’s because they hung out with those people simply because they were there, not because of any underlying affinity. (although you could also say you matured in different directions since then).

The best people and opportunities out there aren’t going to fall in your lap for you to react to them. You have to proactively get out there and find them yourself.

  • Whenever you do something, (or especially if you find yourself ‘very busy’, stop and ask yourself: “Am I doing this because its urgent, or is it really important?
  • Ask yourself why it is you are doing this task. Was it your decision, or was it simply the reasonable reaction to do given the circumstances?
  • Prioritize important proactive action over urgent reactive ones. (duh)