Urgent vs. Important (Overwhelmed Series #1)

You’re overwhelmed. We’ve all been there; the scattered mind as you look at the seemingly endless list of tasks on your to-do list, and think about how much you would rather just be sleeping. You long for more balance in your life, but you’re not sure how to get it. Over the next couple of posts, I will be examining different tips and strategies for handling overwhelm. Let’s dig in!

A major cause of feeling overwhelmed is having too much to do (shocker, I know). Our to-do lists are 1.6 kilometers long, and it seems that more items are being added at an impossible rate. We find ourselves trying to complete tasks, but being distracted by all the other tasks on the list. Something needs to change.

My first thought when someone tells me about their super busy schedule and feeling overwhelmed is “Wow, you need to take a break!” However, I know that isn’t always immediately possible, which leads me to my first strategy for dealing with overwhelm: Distinguish between urgent and important, and complete the urgent items as soon as possible.

Urgent vs. Important

One of the most helpful skills that I ever learned was to distinguish between urgent and important:

Urgent1: (Adj) Calling for immediate attention

Important2: (Adj) Having serious meaning or worth; Having power, authority or influence.

Urgent means it needs to get done right away, or there will be serious consequences. For instance, if you have an assignment for either work or school due by midnight tonight, and you haven’t even started yet, it may be urgent that you work on this project.

On the other hand, important means that something adds value to your life, and it is advantageous or beneficial for you to prioritize time for this. It is important to consistently show up for work on time. Or, it is important to spend time with your friends and family.

Applying the skill

Thanks for the vocabulary lesson, Kala, but what’s the point?

Distinguishing between urgent and important gives you the power to bring down the pressure in your life. When you take a moment to organize your to-do list into “urgent,” “important,” and “Neither urgent nor important,” you empower yourself to focus on the urgent tasks first, which opens up time for those important things that are waiting their turn.

This process will give you a boost psychologically, as well. Completing tasks gives us a sense of accomplishment, which makes sense considering the fact that we have accomplished something. Accomplishing tasks then gives our brains a little boost of dopamine. As you may know, dopamine is a neurotransmitter that makes us feel good. When we complete tasks, our brain releases dopamine, so it feels good and motivates us to keep going.

The second psychological boost that comes from completing urgent tasks is the reduction of stress that comes from no longer having those imminent deadlines. When we are stressed, our brains release stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones push our bodies to accomplish tasks, and in small doses they are very helpful. In larger, more prolonged doses, they become quite harmful. There is a lot of science that I won’t go into here, but the bottom line is that completing those urgent tasks removes the looming deadlines, which reduces stress so our brains can stop producing stress hormones in such large quantities.

As I mentioned earlier, my first thought when I hear about someone’s overwhelmed to-do list or schedule is to encourage them to take a break. Knocking the urgent tasks off your list will open up time for the important task of getting some much-needed rest.

Find support

If you’re feeling like your urgent tasks are never-ending, and this overwhelming season of your life will never end, I encourage you to seek counselling support. It may seem counterproductive to add another appointment to your schedule, but in this case counselling may help you find your way out of the storm of overwhelm. You are important, and if you are feeling endlessly overwhelmed, finding support is urgent.

A great way to minimize the time a counselling appointment takes is to access online counselling. Online counselling eliminates the commuting time, so all you need is 50 to 60 minutes of time to focus on yourself. I offer online individual counselling sessions to adult residents of British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Newfoundland, and the Territories, and am happy to support you through this time. Click here to book a free 20-minute consultation.