Stephen Covey, in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, has us distinguish between the urgent and the important things - and reminds us that to be effective we must make time for the important, even if it means saying no to some of the urgent.
The Getting Things Done Yahoo group has been discussing urgent vs. important recently. Kelly Anderson, who works at a rape crisis center, provided a great illustration, and has agreed to let me share it with you.
In the simplest definition, urgent is about how time-sensitive something is, and important is about the impact if it's not done.
Answering the crisis line is both urgent (gotta do it while it's ringing, before the caller hangs up) and important (it's the work of the agency, and the impact on the individual is huge).
Getting a major grant in on time, so we can continue to function, pay staff, and be here for the next 1,000 callers, is also important -- ultimately, more so than answering a specific call. And if we're not careful about workload and prioritizing, the urgent but not as important things (someone's computer crashed, or the media is calling...) will get attention first, until the grant becomes urgent because the deadline is tomorrow.
That's why it's essential that the person writing the grant be clear that it's her highest priority -- and someone else will have to answer the crisis line.