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How to Make Time for the Important

Do you find yourself constantly busy with urgent tasks, left with no time to work on less urgent yet more important activities? In my experience this is a wide-spread problem, both at the workplace and at home. How many people do you know acknowledge the importance of exercise, but claim they don't have the time? In my current work assignment, I often see people spending large amounts of time trying to fix problems, but little to no time trying to identify the root causes and prevent such problems from occurring in the first place. Some examples of these important but usually non-urgent tasks are code refactoring and long-term strategic planning. I am a firm believer in making time for the important, but at work this is very challenging: I have many responsibilities, including responding to operational issues that are almost always urgent. With my time split among many tasks, I have been forced to learn strategies for how to find time for the important but non-urgent tasks that otherwise would be put off indefinitely.

One common strategy is to allocate a fixed amount of time each week to one or more of these important tasks - usually about four hours a week, which is only 10% of a 40-hour work week. Since it is usually more efficient to use a larger block of time for one task, a common variation is to allocate an entire day less frequently - one day every two weeks is still only 10% of the total work hours.

I have found a couple of difficulties with this fixed-time strategy. The first problem is actually choosing when to spend this time. For example, at the start of one week I decided that Friday afternoon would be reserved for important, non-urgent tasks. But on Friday morning a serious operational problem was discovered that required my attention for most of the day, and the important tasks had to wait. The second problem is that working on a task for only a fixed period of time does not mesh well with my preferred style of working. I find it most productive to break up a task into separate pieces and only switch tasks after completing a piece - not in the middle.

I therefore developed a strategy that works better for me. Whenever a week goes by in which I have not made any progress on my important, non-urgent tasks, I choose one of these tasks as my next major work item. In my next available significant block of time I work on this task, ignoring all but the most urgent issues. My goal is to complete one or more logical pieces of the task. I don't pay particular attention to how long it takes, although it is usually no more than a day.

Another strategy that works well for me is to gradually increase the urgency of a neglected important task until it is done. This is how I ensure I regularly exercise. If I miss a workout, my sense of urgency about it starts to increase day by day until I finally do it. The key to this approach is that you need to hold a conviction about the importance of the activity and why a continued delay in doing it would be bad. The case for exercise is simple: the benefit comes from regular physical activity - a minimum of three times a week is recommended - so the longer the interval between workouts, the worse the effect on my health.

These strategies are based on a common principle from Stephen Covey's book First Things First which classifies activities into four quadrants based on their importance and urgency. My description of tasks as important or urgent is based on the classification from the book. This common principle is to choose the important over the urgent. Unimportant tasks, even if urgent, should be neglected in favor of important tasks. While urgent important tasks need to get done quickly, it shouldn't be at the expense of non-urgent tasks that are equally if not more important.

Making time for the important is often a challenge. I have presented some of the approaches I use to ensure that important but non-urgent activities get done. If you have particular strategy that works well for you, please share it.

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11 Comments on “How to Make Time for the Important”

  1. Matt says:

    Nice How To list. I started my MBA program and life just a got a whole lot more busy. The things that I feel are important tend to change depending on the work load, school work load, and home life. Thanks for the helpful information. My How To is up if you want to check it out.

  2. Legal Andrew says:

    Getting the Important, but non-Urgent, Tasks Done

    How often do you have things on your task list that are important, but not urgent? If you are like most of us, these tasks regularly get shoved to the side and maybe never done.
    I just read a really good post at the Professional Software Development b…

  3. MamaDuck says:

    Excellent ideas, I’m always getting sidetracked! Our list is up as well if you’d like to check it out!!

  4. Jersey Girl says:

    Great idea, Just like MamaDuck, I get sidetracked so easily!

  5. Thanks for all the kind words. I’m glad you all found the article useful.

  6. Ray Dotson says:

    I agree about splitting up the bigger tasks into smaller ones. This makes a lot of sense. Also, it’s a great idea to focus as completely as possible on those pieces and not stop until they are finished. Thanks for the great article.

  7. [...] How to Make Time for the Important by Basil [...]

  8. [...] Basil Vandegriend presents How to Make Time for the Important posted at Basil Vandegriend: Professional Software Development. [...]

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