Should I finish my report first or take care of my emails at the office? Should I attend to my sick mother-in-law or go to my child’s parent-teacher meeting? Is it more urgent to do the laundry or to cook the lunch? Life tosses at us choices to be made round the clock, and we find ourselves continuously deciding what to do. Some of us prioritize in terms of value, while others arrange items to do in terms of time. Nevertheless, all of us would benefit from learning what we need to do first, what we need to do next, and what we do not need to do at all.

It is helpful to understand that most of our daily prioritization springs to action from our discretionary mental routines (DMRs). We develop our DMRs over a lifetime, depending upon our education and experiences. Hence, our choices are automatic, unless we consciously reflect before coming to a decision. For instance, you may know three people who either live with you or work with you. One day you notice that all three make the same mistake, and you decide to help them out by offering sincere advice.

You approach ‘A’ and correct him gently. He not only listens to you carefully but also seriously assesses his mistake, and eventually thanks you for helping him grow. Next, you offer the same piece of advice to ‘B’. He immediately becomes defensive, and starts explaining himself, without listening to you. At the end, he thanks you ceremoniously, and you feel highly uncomfortable following this incident. Lastly, you talk to ‘C’, who blows up in your face. He reacts bitterly to your counsel, and you regret bringing it to his attention to begin with.

Every person has different DMRs, and they can be highly ineffective, incorrect, and inefficient. They lead to wrong choices and poor behaviour in life, too. Based on this, we decide what is urgent and important in our routine. For example, for one person, watching a movie could be more urgent than visiting an ill neighbour while for someone else, attending a party could be more important than participating in a relative’s funeral.

Are important and urgent the same?

Late Dwight Eisenhower, the 34th President of America, once said: “Things which are important are seldom urgent, and things which are urgent are seldom important.” This idea was further cooked up and dished out in Steven Covey’s landmark book, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. The invaluable insight firstly explains that urgent and important are not the same as commonly presumed. Secondly, it trains people to prioritize their tasks, bringing order, peace of mind and, ultimately, a sense of achievement into their lives.

Every individual has a different definition of the terms ‘important’ and ‘urgent’ in his mind. Timelenders offers this definition of ‘important’: “Anything that takes us towards our strategic vision is called important, and anything that doesn’t take us towards or takes us away from our strategic vision is called not important.”

Someone’s vision may include maintaining a good health, keeping strong relationships with family, facilitating intellectual growth to serve the community, worshipping Allah (swt), and being financially sound. Subsequently, this individual’s daily routine would now include exercise, balanced diet, regular quality time with the family, and anger control. He would attend workshops and pursue education that facilitates growth, engage in such spiritual retreats as Tahajjud, contemplating the Quran, and following the Sunnah; he would also plan well to save, invest, and spend in moderation.

Consciously chart out the following in order to understand what holds importance in your life, and how much you like or dislike doing it. This will indicate good compromises, such as waking up early for Fajr, dressing up your kids for school, or preparing breakfast, even though you may dislike it. Pat yourself on the back, and seek reward from Allah (swt). Stop complaining to others or wishing for badges of honour from the family, as this is important for you, and you will do it at any cost.

Likewise, you will maybe notice you have spent too much time on socializing or sitting in front of the screen late into the night. Now is the time to hold back. Even though it delights you, it will be affecting your other somewhat ignored healthy choices which should hold more importance, such as a good night’s sleep, more interaction with your spouse, studying for self-improvement, or quality time spent with parents.

Important Doing Like No. (in terms of priority Activities
Yes Yes Yes 1  
Yes Yes No 2  
Yes No Yes 3  
Yes No No 4  
No Yes Yes 5  
No Yes No 6  
No No Yes 7  
No No No 8

 

Urgent is defined as “anything which if not done in the present, most probably cannot be done later, if you are alive and able,” for example, applying brakes while driving in order to avoid an accident. Also bear in mind that urgent and important are mutually independent. They do not overlap. Usually, important matters are related to people, while urgent matters are related to time. Most urgent matters are urgent for everybody, for example, offering a person first aid in a heart attack. But important matters differ as per a person’s choice, for example, for someone, sleeping at a designated time for a stipulated number of hours may be important to their health, while for someone else it may be unimportant.

Following are the two conditions for something to be urgent:

  1. Clearly define the activity in unambiguous terms. For example, there is a difference between answering calls, and answering a particular call, and between going to sales, and heading to a particular sale.
  2. Once the activity is defined, ask a question in the passive voice: “If this activity is not done now, can this activity be most probably done later, if I am alive and able?” If the answer is no, then this activity is urgent; otherwise it is not urgent.

To figure out whether an activity is urgent, not urgent, important or not important, tick the following:

No. Activities Urgent or

not urgent

Important or not important
1 Sleeping    
2 Watching a live cricket match    
3 Gossip    
4 Exercise    
5 Seeking forgiveness from your spouse    
6 Hugging your child    
7 Attending a scheduled meeting    
8 Going to a sale ending today    
9 Seeking forgiveness from Allah (swt)    
10 Turning in a class assignment on a particular date    
11 Caring for parents    
12 Taking a sick child to the doctor  

 

Our prioritization DMRs get corrupted when we are unable to distinguish between the importance and urgency of some task. One may question: how can something urgent not be important?

Marketers understand the tendency of customers to confuse urgency and importance. Next, they build their sales pitch on urgency to increase the sales of any particular item. Limited stock! Sale ends today! This creates noise in our minds that refrains us from thinking questions like: is it important for me to buy this item? Not everything valuable is important. It may be urgent for others but holds no importance for me.

Similarly, in another scenario, when people realize that something is not urgent and can wait, it actually never gets done. It slips from the category of important to forgotten. For example, exercise, seeking forgiveness from Allah (swt), or talking to your spouse. Often, when important stuff is left unattended, it eventually becomes urgent. For example, a report that was due, a car that needed maintenance, health that has been ignored, a marriage that has been neglected, children who have not been communicated, with or parents who have been forgotten.

Some people actually enjoy living in a state of urgency, and boast about their skill to put out one fire after another. A moderate amount of stress is good in life; such stress is called the eustress, for example, saving oneself from drowning or escaping from a mad dog. However, always waiting for issues to assume crisis-proportion and only then attending to them is a very poor choice in life.

An ideal Muslim deals with everything according to its value. It is humanly impossible to juggle everything at the same time. Hence, for a content and successful life, put a tag on all your activities according to their importance or urgency, and customize your own routine. What may be important to others need not be important to you. For Muslims, we find the best example in the Prophet’s (sa) Sunnah which can serve as a beacon of light for our guidance.