Too often, people approach to-do lists by tackling the tasks that require the least amount of time and resources in the moment--even when those tasks don't move them toward completing long-term goals.

Achievement-oriented individuals know that a different productivity concept must be used to reach big-picture goals. They understand that there's a difference between things that are urgent and things that are important--and that the two are often mutually exclusive.

For those who find making this distinction difficult, author Stephen Covey coined Eisenhower's Urgent/Important Principle in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The tool is based on the way President Dwight D. Eisenhower prioritized the tasks that demanded his attention. This principle recognizes that tasks typically fall into one of four quadrants--and that we tend to complete them in this order:

  1. Urgent and Important: Things that are important to do and need to be done now.
  2. Urgent and Not Important: Minor tasks that are time-sensitive. It feels good to check these off our lists, but they aren't really critical.
  3. Important and Not Urgent: Things that need to be done but don't have to be done immediately.
  4. Not Urgent and Not Important: These tasks are neither important nor time-sensitive.

One of the biggest mistakes leaders make is to focus energy on "Urgent and Not Important" before "Important and Not Urgent." If you continuously ignore the important things you want to accomplish long-term, those tasks will inevitably become both urgent and important. Then you will become reactive to the emergency, meaning you are completing tasks in "firefighting" mode--not the best way to accomplish anything.

On the flip side, prioritizing things that are "Urgent and Not Important" distracts you from accomplishing the tasks that are most important. It can feel good to cross seemingly urgent items off your list, but these things won't move the needle in your personal or professional life.

A few years ago, I began organizing my to-do list into the following buckets (I have put them in recommended order and outlined my thinking for each):

  1. Urgent and Important:  Do them because you have to, and delegate where possible to get tasks done right.
  2. Important and Not Urgent:  This is the most important bucket because these things move us toward our big-picture achievements. The key to getting these tasks done is to make time each day or week to move toward your goals. 
  3. Urgent and Not Important: Get these off your plate and don't let them distract you. Keep your eyes on the prize!
  4. Not Urgent and Not Important: Do your best to avoid these entirely.

When I follow this task prioritization process, I find that I am able to meet my goals with fewer things sneaking up on me. Talking to others who now use Eisenhower's Urgent/Important Principle, I've discovered that many have experienced the same great results.

If we live our personal or professional lives in a reactionary way, we will never accomplish the bigger goals we set for ourselves. Whether you choose to incorporate Eisenhower's Urgent/Important process or a different approach, the key is to avoid the urgent distractions and stay focused on what you want to achieve in the long term. If you do, you'll find yourself accomplishing so much more than you thought possible.

Published on: Nov 20, 2018
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.