Urgent and Important are Not the Same Thing—Even When It Comes to Email

urgent and important

At first glance, this sounds obvious: of course “urgent” and “important” don’t mean the same thing…there are even, like, totally different words for them.

But when it comes to email, they are often treated as interchangeable, and the fact that we conflate these two different qualities speaks to a couple of perceptual problems that get right to the heart of what’s wrong with the email status quo.

“Urgent”, of course, answers the question “When?” (The answer? “NOW!”), while “important” gives information about the “What?” of an email. But because of basic human nature, as well as a modern work culture where automatic ASAP has become the norm, we tend to overvalue things that need to be handled immediately (confusing urgency with importance), and we tend to favor a chronological prioritization of things we care about doing well (confusing importance with urgency).

(The latter case will be clear to you if you’ve spent any time studying productivity tips, any list of which will usually include some version of the rule “Do the most important thing first.”)

From an evolutionary standpoint, it makes sense that we tend to overestimate the importance of urgent things: there is a cost to being jumpy at every little thing that requires our proximate attention, because it means wasting energy on things that actually don’t matter. But acting on too many false positives like this is still a much safer strategy than receiving false negatives that allow us to underestimate a potential threat.

Basically, it’s better to startle at a buzzing gnat than sleep through a tiger attack.

It also makes sense to think that important things should be handled urgently. In a workplace, time and energy are limited resources, and so we triage—handle the important things first, the thinking goes, so that when we inevitably run out of time or steam, we will have accomplished our most important task.

But while both of these confusions are understandable, they are harmful when it comes to dealing with email. If I’m ordering lunch I may need to know urgently whether or not you want a side salad, but this is hardly very important.

Conversely, if my boss is asking me for a detailed progress report on an ongoing project, that may be something he wishes for me to have ready in a week rather than immediately precisely because it is important: in this sense, a matter’s importance often makes it less urgent, not more.

By decoupling the false twins of importance and urgency, Timyo helps you to clearly and easily let others know exactly what you expect and when you expect it. If I receive an email with this—

urgent and important are two different things

—I don’t freak out and go into crisis mode; I know it only means that a reply is needed immediately, not that it is necessarily of earth-shattering importance. I also have faith that my coworkers will only use ASAP when immediate action is actually required, since it means taking me away from whatever other task I’m working on.

And if I receive an email requesting a reply a month from now—

urgent and important are two different things reply in a month

I know that this doesn’t mean it’s unimportant (and, in fact, as per above, may actually mean it’s more important).

Ultimately, “urgent” and “important” mean different things to different people. Using Timyo takes out the guesswork for the recipient, and let’s the sender say exactly what she means.

This is good, because while ambiguity can be a beautiful thing in many matters—the wardrobe and gender identity of the late David Bowie, the ending of Inception—email expectations isn’t one of them.

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