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Nov/Dec 2005 – Urgent and Important

It was in the numbing frenzy of a harvest season a few years ago, when I was trying to fill firewood orders, help preserve produce from the garden and finish a batch of roasting chickens, that a friend slipped me a note bearing advice about time management. He said, “Before you do anything in the morning, first decide what’s important and what’s urgent, and what is neither. Then get to work. This will help you do that.”

The note was on the back of a old library index card. It was written in black ink. It says:

  1. Urgent & important
  2. Important but not urgent
  3. Urgent but not important
  4. Not urgent & not important.

The list helps order a day’s work.

Some people would call it a time management device, but I hate that phrase—too prosthetic. I think of the list as a screen onto which I dump each day’s work. The big and important items remain on top, the smaller less consequential items filter down. For example, those tasks that are urgent and essential (lambing, calving) get priority. Those tasks that are important but not urgent (getting the fall rye in before frost) come next. What’s urgent but not important? Phone calls and email. Rare is it that they can’t wait. If you are chatting on the phone at 10 in the morning and there are roasters to truck to the processor, your priorities are cacked up.

What I really like about this list is that it even allows for good old-fashioned goofing off—the not urgent and not important. If you lack time to build a birdhouse, or to sort nuts and bolts on a hot afternoon while listening to a Blue Jays game on the radio, then something has gone horribly amiss with life.

Some people seem to have an innate ability to set good priorities. For those of us who’ve occasionally caught ourselves tarping a pile of hay against a midnight shower, or fixing the fence after the ewes have escaped, it is useful to have help setting the order of things.