Important But Not Urgent

ImportantNotUrgentEvery Friday my syndicated column appears in a bunch of newspapers in southeastern Ontario and Saskatchewan. Here’s my New Year’s one, talking about one of Steven Covey’s principles in the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

My favourite time of year is the week between Christmas and New Year’s. Everything shuts down, and our family cocoons together. Before Christmas is a huge rush, but after Christmas we lounge around, sleep in, and, my absolute favourite—play board games together.

It’s become a family tradition. Every year sees a new game under the Christmas tree, and then that game gets played, along with an assortment of other ones, over the next week or so. Sometimes friends join us, and sometimes it’s just the four of us, but it’s always a ton of fun.

What I will never understand, though, is why we don’t continue that fun into the year. We all love the games. We laugh, and create family memories, and make fun of certain family members who always get lucky—or never do. Yet once “real life” starts new, the games get stashed away into the cupboard, often to remain there for another year. Why?

About sixteen years ago I read a book that changed my life: The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. One of the most important insights that he had was the idea of dividing everything we do into four categories, based on whether those things were important and urgent. So you could have urgent but not important (the phone’s ringing, and it’s a telemarketer), or you could have important but not urgent (spending time doing nothing with your teenage son). Then there are the “fires” in your life, those things that are both important and urgent, like dealing with a child’s suspension from school, or dealing with a spouse who just revealed they’re having an affair, or handling a family funeral.

Some fires can’t be avoided—the funeral, for instance—but others could likely have been prevented. And the way to prevent them is to spend more time doing things that are important but not urgent: those things that feed your soul and that feed your relationships. Read to your children. Start a hobby with your spouse. Talk to God. The more we centre ourselves, finding spiritual peace, and build into relationships, the fewer crises we will have in our lives.

But there’s a problem with these important but not urgent things, and it’s in the very definition of them: they aren’t urgent. There isn’t anyone forcing you to do them. And it’s so easy for the urgent-but-not-important things, like checking your Facebook notifications, or replying to tweets, or checking your texts, to get in the way of the important things—the people standing right in front of us.

The key thread throughout Covey’s book, in all seven habits, is the idea of intentionality. Nothing will get done just because we value it, or because we dream of it, or because we make Pinterest boards of it. It only gets done because we do it. After reading that book I did quit TV, but despite that as my teenagers have grown I’ve found it a challenge to prioritize those family times.

Why don’t we play family games during the year as much? Because nothing is forcing us to do it. And so when work and school schedules get busy, when friends want to talk on Facebook, when I have one more article to write, we tend to retreat to our own little worlds. And so often those, “I just need twenty minutes to finish this,” become two hours, and the night has evaporated.

7 HabitsThat’s not who I want to be. I want to be the Sheila that lives from Christmas to New Year’s, hanging out in fuzzy pyjamas with cups of hot chocolate and board games on the table. This year, I hope, I will be intentional enough not to neglect the important in favour of the urgent.

Check out Steven Covey’s the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People!


  1. Michele ºÜº says:

    I agree with this so much. This year we had a game night and invited my extended family over to play games on Christmas Eve Eve. It was sooo much fun!!! When I talked to my sister the next day we decided that it is something we want to do again, several times this coming year. So we chose a date for the next one and wrote it down right then. I’m thinking this will help us follow through. 😉

  2. You’re lucky your kids are old enough to have fun with. Mine are 3 and 2, and the week between Christmas and New Year’s is miserable, because Daddy goes back to work the second he can, we don’t have extended family to visit or entertain, and there’s nothing to do. Hoping this gets better as they get older, but I have my doubts.

    • Michele ºÜº says:

      Yes Amanda, I am lucky now. But you can cuddle and read seasonal picture books with your little ones; I remember doing that when mine were little. You can cuddle up with the laptop or ipad or such and play some online games together. Just google games for toddlers and you should find some. Here’s the first one I found: There’s also NickJr and there is a Mickey Mouse/Disney site with games for young ones too that my sister played with my daughter when she was little.

      It might be fun to play Twister with your young ones. 😉 You might have to modify the rules a little because of their smaller bodies. There is an app on the iphone called Twister Companion that will take the place of the spinner and has a countdown until it calls out the next move.

      If you look into Before Five In A Row, there are some great suggestions of activities to do that would correlate to kids picture books.

      I know you hear it all the time, but it is really very true, they grow up all too fast, enjoy them while they are young because they grow up and have minds of their own and don’t necessarily do the things you would like to do later in life. And as they grow, it is okay to make them play games with you. 😉

      When mine were young, I turned to computer games because my hubby doesn’t like board games. Now ALL my family (hubby and kids) LOVE video games so much it is hard to get them to play board games with me. LOL

      You can also make edible playdough and make things and have them guess what they are (kind of like what I think Cranium might be like…gotta get that game.)

      Also, don’t forget to let the kids cook with you. Yes it takes longer, but you can make some wonderful memories of them helping you. Give them a plastic knife to cut some items and let them tear lettuce for a salad. Let them dump in the measured ingredients.

      We’ve also made a tradition out of watching the Christmas shows. When we have time, we still watch Franchesco’s Christmas, Barbie and the Nutcracker, Red Boots, and the Veggie Tales Christmas. We also still like to read the picture books I read them as kids; unfortunately we didn’t do it this year and it looks like those books may be resting until either my nieces come over during the holidays or I have grandkids (in the not too distant future).

      It really is all what you make it. I have a saying from long ago that I’ve tried to incorporate into our lives, “Find the fun in what needs to be done.” It has really helped, especially since I’m a homeschool mom who has graduated 2 of my 3 children already.

      I hope these ideas help. Definitely pray about it; God wants you to have fun with your kids as much or more than you desire it.

  3. Sheila, I needed this to be put into words so much. With homeschooling seven kids and going to school myself, I feel like everything is urgent. Exploding diapers and deadline for a paper crowd out reading books to the kids and extending bedtimes to talk about big and little things wih the kids. But the important stuff is where relationships are forged and bonded. I HATE going to school, for this very reason. I just bought a bunch of organizational stuff today and hope to keep it all straight in the new year so that everything has a chunk of my time. I don’t want to live my life for the trivial but urgent.

    Amanda–I have older kids and a few teenagers now, but also have younger kids and toddlers. I see everything all together at this point in my life. The little years are SO hard and lonely (wonderful wih sweet little faces and kisses, but hard). It DOES get better, I promise. The kids get more reasonable and fun to be around. Those game nights will come and it will have all been worth it.

  4. Thank you for the post! It was such a good reminder and comes at a wonderful time of the year!

  5. I read his book about 20 years ago and it was a life changer for me too. Thanks for the reminder of the important versus the urgent :)

  6. I’m one of those moms who have been home for twenty years. Kids are ages 17, 15, 8, and 6. It’s so fun to have another turn being mommy to little ones. TIME, whether quality or not, is important! Training teens is hard if they aren’t used to being around. Luckily, mine are. Thanks for this encouragement, and I will look for that book.

  7. Brilliant post, thanks so much for this insightful reminder to play board games. They are more important and more urgent than we realise.

  8. Sheila – Great thoughts, thanks. If you have not read “Margin” by Richard Swenson I highly recommend it.
    Paul H. Byerly recently posted…A woman’s view on women and sexMy Profile

  9. I love the last line: Don’t neglect the important for the urgent.

  10. All the 7 Habits are timeless in relevance and application. When his son wrote “The Seven Habits of HIghly Effective Teens”, I had both of the teens at home read it and reviewed it with them as they want along. I had a grandson read it also and he was proud that he had completed it. I feel it should be taught in schools to help kids learn to prioritize their lives. They may not assimilate the information in the same way an adult might, but it will be held in their subconcious to be accessed when it is most needed. I know as much as my daughter hated reading it at the time, she will mock his teachings back to me when we are having an argument. She may be mocking now, but the truth is that the knowledge stuck with her well enough for her to attack me with it. When the time is right, the student will learn. Until then , there is always prayer.

  11. I love this! Thank you for the reminder!!
    Rebecca recently posted…Our Homeschool Week (December 31-January 4)My Profile

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