“I couldn’t complete that task because there were other, more important things to do”. How many times have you either heard someone utter that sentence – or said it yourself?

Human beings are generally fairly poor at working out the difference between urgent and important tasks.

If you get to the end of the day and realise you’ve ticked off every item on your to-do list but without anything particularly meaningful to show for it, you’ve probably neglected to tackle the most important tasks.

It’s all too easy to get lost in a cycle of doing stuff that feels urgent, but which – as you dig deeper – really isn’t that important at all.

Unfortunately, some of the most meaningful tasks are less likely to have deadlines, which is why they often get left behind the things that feel like they need doing now.

For instance, you have two tasks on your mind:

  • Complete the sales report for tomorrow’s board meeting.
  • Research new ways to source pre-qualified leads that comply with the GDPR.

Which one are you more likely to focus your attention on immediately? The board meeting report clearly needs doing, but should it steal all of today’s limelight from a task that will ultimately have a much bigger impact on the business?

Arguably not.

So, what can we do about importance and urgency? How can the two be contrasted and separated in our minds and what strategies can we use to find our optimal levels of productivity that result in the important stuff gaining the attention it deserves?

Whether you work in web design, retail, finance or any other sector – this guide is for you.

Give important tasks ample space on your to-do list

Looking back at those two task examples above, would you even schedule time in your to-do list or project planner for number 2?

Some people wouldn’t, believing that such tasks need to be tackled as and when time allows. And that’s a shame, because the likelihood is they’ll never be tackled if you take that approach.

This is why you need to always add the important tasks (you’ll know which ones they are, deep down) to your to-do list. More importantly, you need to ensure they have a tonne of time set against them.

In fact, give them more time than you think they need so they never fall off your to-do list until they’re 100% complete. They deserve it.

Look to achieve incremental progress

The big, important tasks in your working life can usually be broken up into smaller, bite-sized chunks.

If you take this incremental approach, you’ll stand a far better chance of meeting your bigger goals. And this might result in your to-do list being filled up with lots of sub tasks, but that’s fine.

Remember, as humans, we like to tackle the smaller, more accessible stuff, and big goals become far less onerous or seemingly impossible when broken down.

Accept you’ll occasionally feel anxious about the important stuff

Big tasks aren’t always easy to get your head around. If they involve making massive decisions or delving into the deep unknown, you’ll undoubtedly feel a bit anxious about undertaking them.

How do you get around this? It’s simple; accept that those feelings of anxiousness will occasionally arrive – and meet them head on.

When you start to feel like that about an important task, try our previous tip and break it down into manageable chunks. Take one step at a time and, whenever you feel like it’s all getting a bit much, step back and remind yourself of the bigger goal.

If you’re still struggling, check out this awesome guide to kanban.

Don’t devote so much time to smaller, less important tasks

Everything on your to-do list should need ‘doing’ – that’s obvious. But if you find that you’re scheduling more time than you need to complete certain tasks (once again, deep down you’ll know which ones these are), it’s best to be honest with yourself.

By spending less time on unimportant tasks, you’ll end up with more time to address the more important actions.

This might mean finding new tools to help you complete those smaller tasks more quickly or figuring out how you can make decisions faster. Whatever you need to do to make the less important stuff take place without it impacting your day too heavily – do it!

Note how many times you say “I’m too busy”

It’s so easy to fall into the trap of being ‘busy’ without really being able to explain why you’re busy.

Whenever you react to a request from a friend or colleague by claiming you’re ‘too busy’, take a step back and ask yourself why.

Chances are, you’re not too busy at all – you just think you are. And, more importantly, it’s probably because you haven’t approached your to-do list in a sensible fashion.

Take a look back at the rest of the tips in this blog post and work out where you’re going wrong. Make changes and stop devoting too much of your time to the less important tasks on your to-do list. You’ll rarely feel impossibly busy ever again (and that’s a good thing).

And finally: do stuff that helps you see the bigger picture

Stepping back from the daily grind is a great way to help you realise what does – and doesn’t – matter at work.

If you can no longer see the wood for the trees and you feel like you’re constantly chasing your tail without ever really achieving anything, do something to regain your mental space and balance.

For some people, going for a walk, to the gym or jumping on the bike achieves this brilliantly. For others, heading to see a family member or friend, or simply lying down in a dark room for ten minutes is just the ticket.

Life is fast-paced, relentless and full of distractions. By using our tips above and taking time out whenever you need to simply get away from the hustle and bustle of your working day, you’ll discover the difference between importance and urgency and regain your productivity mojo.

Work doesn’t have to feel like you’re sinking into unrelenting quicksand. Accept you’re human – and therefore fallible – and start focusing on what really matters.