The words we use to express ourselves in the workplace dictate so much of what gets done and when it gets done. If you send a colleague a draft of a report you need back Wednesday by noon at the latest, you wouldn’t ask them to return it “sometime mid-week,” because if it arrives Thursday at 9:00 am, that’s too late. It’s about precision. But our vocabulary can get sloppy, and in today’s fast paced work world there are two words that are conflated constantly: urgent and important.
Urgent means something needs to get done as soon as possible. Because of an outside deadline or a fast moving plan, it’s an issue that needs to be addressed now. What urgent doesn’t, and shouldn’t, convey is how significant the outcome of that particular project is. It may be that it’s quite significant, but there’s another word to distinguish that.
Important means that the outcome of the project, email, or meeting has an outsized effect. There are phone calls and then there are important phone calls – the latter group are the ones that requires an extra level of attention because the outcome is critical, involving a key client, a major deliverable, or an essential phase of a project.
Too often these words are interchanged. When handing off a part of a workflow to a colleague, word choice is key. When we, at Edgework Consulting, are leading workshops with teams on time management, we talk about clear communication among team members. If you need an extra set of eyes on an email before you break bad news to a client, let that colleague know you feel it’s an important email he or she is reviewing. And if you need a colleague to look over an email you’re sending to the West Coast office before they open in an hour, let that colleague know your request is urgent. Projects can be one, or the other, or both. But make sure you convey which it is when you make that hand off.
With both “important” and “urgent,” be sure to use them judiciously. Often, beneath those words there’s subtext that can help. If “urgent” means “needs to be done by 5:00,” or “important” means “going out to all our customers,” communicate that information, and be as specific as possible. If emailing, use your subject line to your advantage. If addressing someone in person, clearly state what you’re trying to do. The better you communicate your request with your teammates, the better your results will be.