As humans we have an inbuilt tendency to procrastinate. We focus on things that are or seem ‘urgent’… and there’s plenty of them. That crisis at work you get dragged into. Checking emails constantly through the day. Getting dragged into watching that urgent miniseries on Netflix everyone in your office is talking about. That dinner booking you forgot to make. It has never been easier to fill our days with things that seem to need our attention in that moment.
On the other hand, there are many things in life that are important but not urgent. Getting fit and healthy. Extending your professional development to take your career to the next level. Building quality relationships with the people that are important to you. Getting your money sorted.
These things are never really ‘urgent’, until they reach crisis point. These crises can take a few different forms. You get so unhealthy you start suffering poor health. You end up stuck in the same role at work under a boss you hate. Your partner becomes unhappy or other relationships break down. You start getting close to retirement and realise you don’t have enough money. If any of these things happen, you need to take immediate action, and the problem becomes urgent. The trouble is that if you let it come to this, it’s going to be hard work to course correct and get back on track.
Yes, we’re procrastinators, but this isn’t a new thing. The discussion around our tendency to focus on the urgent over the important isn’t new. In fact, it’s something that has intrigued people for many years. Former U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower was the first to push this into the public eye in a speech in 1954 and the urgent vs. important principle was shortly after nicknamed ‘The Eisenhower Principle’. Steven Covey also wrote about this in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, a book that many successful people cite as one of their most formative reads. Time and time again, the most successful people have shown us that much of their success is built around their tendency to focus on things that are actually important things and ignore the distractions.
This principle can be broken down into the matrix outlined below. Every activity you undertake every single day can be classified into one of these categories.
The Urgent vs. Important Matrix
So what does each quadrant of this matrix actually mean?
Urgent and Important: These are problems or situations that require your immediate attention and lead to an immediate outcome, often requiring you to be working at full capacity in order to reach a tight deadline. Unfortunately, these types of activities pop up more often than we would like them to. It’s easy to fall into the trap of working entirely in this space, but as a lot of energy is expended in this zone, consistent work here isn’t sustainable and can lead to burnout.
Many people end up in this space due to procrastinating. If you delay things that start out as ‘important and not urgent’, you end up in this space when you get closer to your deadline. When you identify an activity which is important but not urgent, allocate good time to getting it done. This will ensure it doesn’t end up becoming urgent.
Urgent and Not Important: These activities often come at the request of others and can seem urgent because of the importance placed on the activity by the person asking you to help. In the heat of the moment, these tasks are often mistaken for being important.
It’s easy to get stuck in this space, but if this happens you won’t get any closer to YOUR personal goals. Sometimes you need to politely say ‘no’ and not get dragged into things that other people have let turn into a crisis for them!
Important and Not Urgent: These are often activities that result in you achieving a goal that’s important to you, such as your personal goals. If you don’t make time for these activities, it’s easy to fill the space. You can still be ‘busy’ without being effective.
But it’s tricky. We’ve all been there. You get to thinking about a task or project that can help you get something you really want. You get all pumped up about the ultimate result you’re going to get out of the activity. You’re ready to go. You might put some time aside for this, or you might even jump right in and get cracking straight away. But then your phone goes off, you get a flood of emails, it gets difficult and you lose motivation, or someone pulls you into a conversation, and your important goals hit the backburner. To see these activities through you need to avoid the distractions, which is hard, but the results are worth it.
Not Important and Not Urgent: These are distractions or things other people want you to do that don’t really help you achieve your personal goals. Read: wasting time on social media or other distractions that don’t move you any closer to your personal goals.
These add no value to your life apart from giving you some downtime. Downtime is important, but avoid spending too much time in this space or you’ll never really achieve anything.
How to make this work for you
The tricky part comes from the fact that the important but not urgent activities are those that are often most difficult to maintain your focus on. But on the flip side, it’s these tasks that bring you closer to your personal goals. There’s an argument for spending all your time here. The people that ‘win’ at life are those that build good habits around being disciplined enough to allocate a solid amount of their time to those tasks that are important but not urgent. Unlike others, they prioritise activities such as their health and fitness, personal relationships, their career and professional development, and money.
Making smart money choices and ensuring your money success is something that falls squarely into the important but not urgent column. You know it’s important to have money and be secure. You want the lifestyle benefits you get from being financially independent. You want to retire early, travel more, and be able to spend money on the things you care about. But, if you’re like most people, you probably get distracted by other things and struggle to find the quality mental bandwidth to focus and get the results you really want. You may also be guilty of getting distracted by short term expenses, such as a big day at the races or an Apple Watch. This spending can seem important and/or urgent in the moment, but it often doesn’t bring you any lasting value. If you prioritise this sort of spending, you don’t make any progress toward being able to use your money for bigger, more rewarding future expenses (i.e. actual important spending).
Let me make this tangible for you
My first job in Financial Advice was for a traditional firm that specialised in helping people close to retirement set themselves up to live the retirement they wanted. Our clients were typically aged 50+, and most of the time had a solid amount of money they’d built up over the years. But they weren’t all that way. We’d often get introduced to people that were in this age bracket, looking to retire in the next 5-10 years, but with their finances in a mess. When this happened it was difficult and a pretty sad thing to see. One of these meetings in particular has stuck with me.
I was introduced to a lovely lady in her early 50’s. I’ll call her Julie. Julie was an executive and was making a very healthy income, but had little to show for it. Julie loved to travel and enjoy her lifestyle, and had done a good job of it. I always love to talk travel and when chatting with Julie she had plenty of stories. Julie had seen most of the world through her travels. She also lived a very comfortable lifestyle when she wasn’t travelling, enjoying nice restaurants, good wine, and catching up with family and friends.
The issue for Julie was that she had enjoyed her lifestyle so much that for most of her working career, she had spent almost all of her income on the ‘urgent today’ and not allocated much to the ‘important tomorrow’. Julie and I had some tough conversations and because she had left her run so late, it was impossible for her to retire on the income she was used to, not even by drastically cutting back her day to day spending. Julie wanted to retire at age 60 but that was out of the question. Even by working to age 70 and saving most of her income, she still wouldn’t get close to retiring on an income she was comfortable with.
Julie wasn’t happy with any of the options available to her. She didn’t want to work to 70, she didn’t want to retire on $40k p.a. and she didn’t want to cut back her lifestyle drastically and save all her income. But sadly that was all that was on the table for Julie.
Unfortunately this story doesn’t have a happy ending. But will yours?
Like with most things, the longer you wait to get your money sorted, the more difficult it’s going to be to get what you want. With money there are only so many ‘levers’ you can pull to get more of it when time’s not on your side. You’re going to have to save more, spend less, run more risk in your investment strategy, or settle for less in the future. I think all of these are pretty shitty results.
In the situation above, Julie had neglected the ‘important but not urgent’ activity of getting her money sorted for so long she had cut off her options. Sadly, this wasn’t the only time I saw a situation like this. And the frustrating thing from where I was sitting was that it could have all been avoided.
Julie had been making a good income for 30 years. By saving just a small amount regularly over that time and investing the money, Julie could have retired when she wanted to, on the income she wanted, and had the lifestyle she wanted along the way. And this is also the case with all other important but not urgent activities. If you wait until you have a health crisis it’s going to be harder to get back into shape. If you let your relationships break down it’s harder to get them back.
So what can you do to make the important things happen?
This first thing you need to do is make a choice. You can’t have one foot in and one foot out; you need to consciously decide to give your important tasks priority, knowing there won’t be an immediate payoff, but that the long term benefits will be worth it.
Then you need to avoid distractions. Put some dedicated time aside to work on the things that are important for you. Block this time out. Put it in your diary. Park your phone, and log out of your socials. Give your important tasks solid, uninterrupted time so you can actually make progress.
Next, break your project down into small steps. Most important activities will involve a few different moving parts, and it can seem overwhelming. Breaking down the overall task into the bite size chunks will help you make steady progress and give you that all important momentum, knowing you’re moving towards the end result you want.
Another thing that can help keep you moving forward with your important tasks is having an ‘accountabilabuddy’. Someone to keep you accountable to the targets you’ve set or outcomes you want. Ideally, use someone who understands the thing you’re working on. Even better, use someone who has successfully done this themselves.
What’s your next step?
The sooner you start, the smaller the action and adjustments you need to make. The sooner you start, the easier it is to get what you want, the less you have to sacrifice and the more options you have.
So please, get started NOW. Make it happen. I’m clearly a little biased given what I do, but I don’t think there are too many things in life that are more important than making sure you’re successful with money. This will help you look after the people you love. It will help you live the lifestyle you want. It will mean you never have to suck up to a crappy boss and be stuck in a soul crushing job you hate.
Dedicate the time and energy to spend more time focusing on your personal goals. Those things that aren’t really urgent but will bring you huge benefits in the future. Do this and you’ll get the things YOU really want.