How to Avoid Distractions and Get Important Things Done
Not all important things are urgent. Here's how to know the difference.
Welcome to One Thing Better. Each week, the editor in chief of Entrepreneur magazine (that's me) shares one way to level up — and build a career or company you love.
Today’s one thing: Getting things done.
That one thing, better: Knowing the difference between “important” and “urgent.”
You start each day with a goal: You will get things done!
And yet, you end each day with resignation: Your to-do list is now longer than it was in the morning.
How did this happen? It’s not just a matter of time management or efficiency. It's because we often spend our days tackling the wrong tasks.
Today, I’ll give you a way to identify and tackle the big stuff — so you can make actual progress, instead of just feeling like you whacked a bunch of moles.
What really demands your attention?
I made this with DALL-E 2
Imagine all the tasks in front of you right now. Everybody waiting for your decision. Every email you must reply to. Every project that requires completion.
Some of these tasks are important. Some are just urgent. We often confuse the two.
There’s a fun term for this: It’s called the “mere urgency effect.” Researchers have found that, when unimportant tasks seem time-sensitive, we prioritize them over more actual high-value tasks.
What does that mean? It means that, say, we’ll quickly reply to emails (which could wait) instead of chipping away at a big project (which could be a game-changer).
And why do we do this? The research is a joy to read. It’s so funny to see your terrible habits described in academic terms. For example:
Sound familiar? Ugh.
Here’s an admission: I get hundreds of emails every day, and I routinely — like, maybe every 20 minutes — look at my inbox just to delete stuff. Is this a good use of my time? No! I could very easily do this all at once at the end of the day. But here I am, mindlessly pursuing “immediate and certain payoffs."
So okay. There are urgent tasks, and there are important tasks, and they are not always the same. We must tease them apart.
What task are you facing right now?
If you're struggling to prioritize your tasks, you can try a handy thing called the Eisenhower Matrix. It has a funny history — I’ll share it at the bottom of this email. But for now, let’s just focus on its usefulness.
Pick any task of yours right now. A small project. A big project. An email. A phone call you must return. Whatever it is, it can fit into one of four buckets. It is either...
Important and urgent
Important, but not urgent
Urgent, but not important
Neither important nor urgent
Once you’ve evaluated your task, you can decide how to prioritize it. Which do you do now? Which later? Which never?
There are a lot of versions of this matrix out there. I like this one, from Eisenhower.me:
I’ll admit — I apply this to my life very imperfectly. I still waste a lot of time. But I’m trying. And I’ve found that, once you really take it seriously, the concept helps guide decisions on a minute-by-minute basis.
Try it next time you’re faced with a task. Any task! Could be a text message you receive from a friend, or an email from a colleague, or a project dumped on your desk.
Make a quick calculation: Is this urgent, important, some combination of the two, or neither?
Now let the answer guide you.
For example, here’s a peek into what I’ve done in the past hour, and how I’ve used it:
Newsletter: I’m writing this at 10 am on Thursday, which is usually the day I write my newsletters. (I then refine them over the weekend and send out on Tuesdays.) The newsletter is both urgent and important. I have a deadline to meet, and this newsletter — its quality, its growth, and eventually some big plans I have for it — are a big priority this year. So I’ve dedicated time to it today, and I’m sticking with that. Good!
LinkedIn: About halfway through writing this email, I took a little break and replied to comments on LinkedIn. This is not urgent at all. My justification is that it's important, in that my visibility on LinkedIn drives a lot of connections and opportunities — but realistically, is it important right now? No. I could have done it later. This was a fail; I need to reconsider my time here.
Interview: I just got an email about an interview I’ve been scheduling for Entrepreneur. On its face, this is both important and urgent — but when I step back and think about it, there’s nuance. The urgency is real; the story is time-sensitive. But while I'd initially committed to writing the story myself, it is not actually important that I personally write the story. And if I try to write this story, given my other commitments in the next few days, the story will move slowly — thereby not fulfilling the true urgency of the matter. So I just delegated it to another editor. Good job, me!
Voice memo: A friend just texted me a voice memo about work stuff. I saw it, was curious about it, almost listened — but then realized that while my relationship with this person is important, the voice memo itself is not urgent. So I’ll listen later.
And on we go.
A task comes in, and it gets slotted: It is urgent, important, maybe both, maybe neither. It's worth your time now, later, or never.
In this way, we dedicate ourselves to the most important things. We free ourselves from false urgency. We don't just get things done — we do what needs to get done. Because there's a difference.
And that’s how to do one thing better.
P.S. I said the Eisenhower history was funny…
And here’s why.
I wanted to give some quick background on the Eisenhower stuff here, but I couldn’t find a reliable narrative of it. First of all, there are two names for the concept: There's the Eisenhower Principle (that distinction between important/urgent) and the Eisenhower Matrix (sorting tasks into buckets).
Where did this stuff really come from?
The answer: It's complicated! Some sources say that President Dwight G. Eisenhower himself came up with the concept, as well as the matrix. Others say he popularized the concept, but that he was actually just quoting Northwestern University president Dr. J. Roscoe Miller, who surely got it from someone else. And then, in 1989, author Stephen Covey included it in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which seems to have really sent it blossoming. (And me? Well, I first learned about it from Scott Clary’s newsletter.)
So I wondered: Well, back in Eisenhower's day, did anyone talk about any of this?
I did a newspaper archive search of papers from 1953 - 1961. The term "Eisenhower Matrix" shows up nowhere. The term “Eisenhower Principle” does — but that's because, at the time, the phrase was used to describe his administration’s goals. A 1959 report about minimum wage laws, for example, said “the Eisenhower principle can’t be applied accurately” because of inflation and wage fluctuations. Inflation is indeed both important and urgent, but that's not what they were talking about.
Anyway, this tracks well with my theory of ideas. It is this: Do you know where ideas come from? They come from someone, who heard it from someone, who heard it from someone, who, after dozens or hundreds or thousands of variations across time, finally said it to someone who repeated it in the most memorable way, or was simply the most famous person to say it, or was just somehow adjacent to the idea at the right time. And then that person got all the credit.
But hey, this is fun: On January 18, 1954, one year into the Eisenhower administration, the horoscope in the Journal Herald of Dayton, Ohio, had this to say to Virgos:
Emphasize important and urgent matters today! No matter who said it, it’s good advice.
P.P.S. Did you miss last week’s newsletter? It was about how to overcome your regrets — and even use them to your advantage!
P.P.P.S. I got a lot of nice feedback on the voice memo I embedded in last week's newsletter. Stay tuned for another one of those later this week.
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