From Jim:

Knowing the difference between what is urgent and what is important can make or break your day, can make or break your career, can produce a lifestyle, at work and at home, that is effective, productive, and rewarding---or not. The difference between “urgent” and “important” can serve as the cornerstone for the way you live and work.

In this post I want to look into the difference in emotional impact produced when you focus on the distinction between what is urgent and what is important.


A situation that is considered urgent has special characteristics:

● the problem involved requires immediate action or attention, very often there is little time to do anything but react;

● the problem is pressing and insistent and limits the field of options;

● inherent in urgency is a sense of danger. Like a forest fire, something must be done to bring the situation under control otherwise the consequences can be severe; and

● most often, because the urgency is a surprise, a response is improvised and directed by the circumstances.

An urgent situation, at its core, is one of dominance and draws on whatever materials are at hand to contain it.

Urgency erupts creating a win/lose, life-or-death atmosphere. Just think of any personal or professional urgency you’ve experienced. I remember when I was working in a municipal bond investment bank. We sent out a prospectus for a 570 million dollar bond offer, our largest and most prestigious offer to date. Once the prospectuses were in the mail a calculation mistake was discovered that made all of the numbers wrong. Aside from the document being worthless our reputation was at stake. We undertook a massive campaign to alert all of the recipients by phone and Fed Ex with the promise that a new prospectus would follow shortly. For the next four days, with the document printers being placed on high alert to deliver as fast as possible, we sent out new documents and the problem settled down. But for four days all adrenalin focused on the urgency until it was relieved.

Urgency demands hyper-awareness usually on a single issue relegating all others to the background. And in the brain, no matter what depth of intellect may be involved, the process is largely, and depending on the intensity of the urgency, almost exclusively driven by the hind brain, the Reptilian Brain as it is called, the most primitive level of brain function. Emotionally it’s life or death, fight or flight which closes down the range of focus and jacks up the adrenalin rush. Urgency is about the hyper-dramatic now.

The urgent circumstances take control and we are servants to its needs of the moment. Some synonyms for “urgency” are---dire, desperate, grave, extreme.

There is an intensity gradient generated by urgency but the characteristics I described above are present no matter the degree of intensity.

I’m sure you know people who are urgency junkies and perform best when a crisis erupts. There is a kind of heroism associated with being able to “save the day.”


A situation valued as important is seen to be of much or great significance or consequence. But unlike urgency, importance is entitled to more than the ordinary consideration or notice. What is important usually is subtle and nuanced and therefore takes time.

For example, when in the fourth quarter a company begins to determine its priorities for the next year this is not an activity that should be rushed. The characteristics of a situation that is important are:

● planning, forethought, in-depth discussion, vision versus mere solution;

● a process that evolves incrementally so that the best input is sure to be included.

● not dramatic but controlled; not desperate but confident; proactive versus reactive;

● you take charge of the situation in order to develop and guide the outcome.

A situation that’s considered important is one that requires co-operation in which deliberation and creativity lead to outcomes that may have never been considered before.

This is not to say that what is urgent is not important. But in urgency importance is transmuted into desperation. When something is important, however, urgency is mediated downward and is replaced with confident evaluation.

What about experiences you’ve had when you planned for something important, something that warranted your time and thought, and it turned out almost exactly as you expected. Do you remember the feelings of satisfaction and pleasure you experienced by having directed the project to its predicted conclusion; the feelings of control and mastery; and your sense of self-esteem and value?

Granted the distinction between what is urgent and what is important is fluid. You can experience a sense of satisfaction from rescuing something from going over the cliff. But compared with planning and carrying out something over time to its conclusion the emotional difference is stark.

Over the last thirty years in the work my wife Judith Sherven and I have done first as therapists and then corporate executive coaches it’s clear that most people withdraw from urgency, a small percentage crave it, and even a smaller percentage can address both urgency and importance and clearly discriminate well between the two. They effectively handle urgency when necessary and thrive on the important overall.

So now, looking at the way you function, which do you prefer---the urgent, the important, or both?

Author's Bio: 

Judith Sherven, PhD and her husband Jim Sniechowski, PhD have developed a penetrating perspective on people’s resistance to success, which they call The Fear of Being Fabuloustm. Recognizing the power of unconscious programming to always outweigh conscious desires, they assert that no one is ever failing—they are always succeeding. The question is, at what? To learn about how this played out in the life of Whitney Houston, check out

Currently working as consultants on retainer to LinkedIn providing executive coaching, leadership training and consulting as well as working with private clients around the world, they continually prove that when unconscious beliefs are brought to the surface, the barriers to greater success and leadership presence begin to fade away. They call it Overcoming the Fear of Being Fabulous