When Stephen Covey passed away, we lost one of the great voices in personal development and effectiveness theory. Covey wrote The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and even though the original edition was published in 1989, his wisdom has survived the test of time. I especially appreciate Habit #3: Put First Things First.

Covey counseled that we need to prioritize, plan and execute our tasks based on importance rather than urgency. Managing time effectively, and achieving the things that you want to achieve, means spending your time on things that are important and not just urgent. To do this, and to minimize the stress of having too many tight deadlines, you need to understand this distinction:

Important activities have an outcome that leads to the achievement of your goals.

Urgent activities demand immediate attention.

fork_in_the_road small2Working in the non-profit sector, everything can feel urgent. Urgent activities are often the ones we concentrate on because they are the “squeaky wheels that get the grease.” They demand attention because the consequences of not dealing with them are immediate. Many of the activities that are now urgent (like writing a grant proposal that is due tomorrow) were formerly important before they became urgent (be honest – you knew about the due date weeks ago right?)

In the executive leadership group coaching that I facilitate, I encourage participants to spend at least an hour a day on the important but not urgent activities that will have big payoffs down the road. I give them four tips: close the office door, turn off the phone, silence the email reminder, and post a sign that says ‘I am working on a project and will be available to talk with you at (insert the time).’ In every group, I hear the same thing: “I work with an open door policy. I can’t close my door – what if someone needs me?”

My answer is that if you continually succumb to the urgent, everything will be urgent, even the things that were formerly important when you still had lots of time to complete them. And to be exact, an open door policy doesn’t mean that your door needs to be physically open at all times to everyone. It does mean that you are willing to hear from employees about their concerns. Closing the door for an hour isn’t an expression of unwillingness to interact with an employee; it is a protection that will allow you to hear your employee’s concerns more clearly once you have completed your important priorities. The bonus is that an employee who encounters your closed door occasionally will be in a position to practice their own decision making and problem solving skills instead of relying on yours.

So go ahead, close that door and silence that email reminder. Carve out some time to focus on the important so that it doesn’t suddenly become urgent.