In the real world, categorizing urgent/non-urgent and important/not important tasks is more difficult and ambiguous than under experimental conditions. Here’s how Steven Covey breaks it down in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People:
Urgent matters are those that require immediate action. These are the visible issues that pop up and demand your attention NOW. Often, urgent matters come with clear consequences for not completing these tasks. Urgent tasks are unavoidable, but spending too much time putting out fires can produce a great deal of stress and could result in burnout.
Important matters, on the other hand, are those that contribute to long-term goals and life values. These itmes require planning and thoughtful action. When you focus on important matters you manage your time, energy, and attention rather than mindlessly expending these resources. What is important is subjective and depends on your own values and personal goals. No one else can define what is important for you.
Making this distinction between Urgent and Important is the key to mastering the Matrix. When you master this, the activities that truly matter in work and life are never out of sight or rushed to mediocre completion.
If you don’t try and master these distinctions, you’ll have a natural tendency to procrastinate and focus on those tasks in Quadrant 1— unimportant, urgent activities. This will lead to false instant gratification of being productive.
As you master the distinction between Urgent and Important, you will gradually move from “fire fighting” into a position where you can grow in your professional and personal life. This will be noticeable to you as you see fewer tasks in the Unimportant quadrants and that you are spending more time in Quadrant 2.
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