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James Bond knows the difference between Urgent and Important

“Spectre” is the new James Bond film. Film number 24 for a hugely successful franchise. The pre publicity whets our appetite with what will be new and different, but beneath the changes, we know we will be in for crises that would break a lesser man, breath taking risks managed by precise and obsessive planning, split time decisions about what is important over what is just urgent, pulled together to make sure we leave the cinema knowing that when the chips are down James Bond is “the man”.

His ability to deal with the unexpected with full focus is a result of meticulous planning – investing time in thinking about the important things before the pressure hits. If you have an escape route planned, the “in the moment” decision is much easier. His time management has something in common with that of Eisenhower and Steven Covey –he understands the difference between what is urgent and what is important and how some things can be both.Bond's favourite tipple

A skill that works for the president of the United States and for James Bond can help us in our working lives too. The urgent / important 4 quadrant model is as relevant today as it was for Eisenhower in the 1950’s.

It is perfectly possible that something we need to do is both urgent and important – for Mr Bond an adversary determined to push him off a train, shoot or throw him to the sharks ticks both boxes. I am pretty sure there would be little discussion that focussing all his energy at that moment on stopping that happening is a really good use of his time.

Our working lives, thankfully, are less about life and death and more about prioritizing other people’s requests. So lets take an example. Imagine I’ve had a pretty productive day so far and I’m feeling in control, dealing with a customer complaint. Not a problem, I can investigate and reply in the next hour. But then my boss emails, clearly under some pressure, demanding that I pull a presentation together for a 4pm meeting. Jo emails me, clearly very frustrated that something has gone wrong and he feels I am responsible. It needs to be resolved today and he’s copied everyone in.

I can only do one thing at a time so how do I decide what to do now? Should I stop dealing the customer complaint? With a cool look I can solve the problem, but suddenly there is a lot on my desk. How can I make a good decision about what to do with my time? And how can I say “no”, and who to?

James Bond is very good at is making the right choice is a crisis. How is this possible? Well lets think what our untrained reaction to any of the situations he might find himself in. Our instinctive response of fight of flight does not always suit us well in the modern world. If someone asks me to do something my immediate reaction may be to say “yes” because I want to please or alternatively to respond with an emotional “no” because it is just the last straw. What would Mr Bond do? He’ll take considered action – his response will be focussed on what he wants to achieve given the situation he is facing to give him the best outcome.

One thing is clear, being able to respond and not react is much easier if you are in control of your time. We can do this by treating our time as a resource, planning how to spend it, and then spending it proactively to stop the sparks that start the fires while also allowing flexibility for when we need to respond.

So going back to my day that has suddenly taken a turn for the worse, I may decide that all these are both urgent and important. I need to find helpful ways to prioritize and negotiate. And even if on this occasion they are all urgent and important, I can learn some lessons to stop it being repeated. I can work with my boss or my colleagues either to get more warning in the future or to help them to see that they will get a much better result if these can become planned activities rather than emergencies.

This proactive planning is a key part of Mr Bond’s survival, we can see death is often denied by extensive preparation beforehand either by himself or others –he knows where that street leads or that bridge will be too low for his pursuers boat. He knows the car will work under water, the poison dart will fire. He may operate alone but without Q and his team, life while still exciting, would perhaps have been a little shorter. So both he and his team have found time in their busy days to spend time thinking.

When we ask people on our programs why they find it difficult to manage their time, 90% will say it’s the demands, requests, pressure or short deadlines from others. We know we can’t directly change other peoples’ behaviour but by changing our behaviours we can get a different response. For most of us therein lies the secret of getting more control of our day. So working out how to respond to their requests in a way that will foster a good working relationship but not relinquish control of your time is an increasingly important skill in today’s knowledge management and service oriented workplaces.

If you would like to know more about how the Urgent / Important model (1) can help you get control of your time, have a look at our programme, Time and Priority Management.

(1)    Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and First Things First