Not Important, Not Urgent

In Stephen Covey’s famous important/urgent 2×2 diagram, why is the not important/not urgent quadrant even there (other than for geometric completeness)? If you’ve always got things going on, the other three quadrants always trump the NI/NU quadrant after all, so do things in it every get done? Do they need to?

I claim that the critical NI/NU stuff is stuff that usually only gets done when it moves to one of the other quadrants. When it isn’t being done, it exists in a state of brokenness. This is okay. Wanting to eliminate all brokenness from your life is practically the definition of OCD.

Most of us live in a state of constant semi-brokenness due to things in the NI/NU quadrant that we never seem to get around to.

Here’s how this quadrant works.

Three Examples of Jumps

An example of NI/NU jumping to NI/U is making a will.

Most people don’t have one, and they have a niggling sense of brokenness in their affairs as a result. This can seem like NI/NU (“the default inheritance is probably fine, and I am probably not going to die tomorrow”), but if you’re suddenly diagnosed with cancer, you become acutely aware of things like helping your heirs avoid  paperwork, unnecessary tax burdens, and unnecessary squabbles that might hurt relationships. None of this is really important for most ordinary people, but still, it is enough to motivate action when the penalties loom.

So you hurriedly call up a lawyer and “get your affairs in order.”

In this case, the broken task jumps to the U/NI quadrant by virtue of the increased penalties for not doing it, which previously were beyond the far-discounted horizon, suddenly loom. Nothing else changed.

An example of a jump from NI/NU to I/U is a slovenly and unsuccessful screenwriter who spends all his time being unshaven and smelly and living off pizza and beer. His face is riddled with acne and he has BO.

Then one day he gets a call from Steven Spielberg expressing interest in one of his scripts and asking for a meeting the following week.

If he’s smart, our friend is going to very suddenly shower, shave, get some decent clothes and a haircut, eat healthy for a few days and generally clean up his act. Otherwise he risks blowing the chance of a lifetime for completely stupid reasons. A lot of things suddenly moved from NI/NU to I/U by virtue of getting tied up in a bigger opportunity. Unlike the first kind of jump, here there are new variables in play, not just a reassessment of old variables with revised formulas.

And finally, for an example of NI/NU jumping to I/NU, consider a workaholic who neglects his health and works 100-hour weeks throughout his twenties. Assume he was healthy and fit at 22, leaving college.

At some point, he faces diminishing returns from the obsessive workaholism, gains weight, loses endurance and in general, begins to falter. At this point, investing in health, which was previously NI/NU when he was living off a youthful reserve of robust health, becomes important. It is now the bottleneck preventing him from functioning at the next level.

So our friend changes behaviors and starts to get into shape because poor health has become a drag on performance.  In this case, the variables remain the same, but the dynamics mapping them to value (the formulas) change. The marginal returns are now higher for previously NI/NU variables (a case of what OR people call a “moving bottleneck”).

Potentially Important/Urgent vs. Native NI/NU Stuff

The key to processing the NI/NU quadrant is to separate the potentially important and/or urgent stuff from the native stuff that will never leave the quadrant.

What is this native stuff?

The NI/NU quadrant contains some things that should probably not be done at all (and should therefore be dropped) and some things that do need to get done, just not when there’s stuff in the other quadrants that you could be doing instead.

This means the NI/NU stuff gets done when you’ve either got a rare period of complete emptiness in the other three quadrants, or when you have stuff there, but are too tired or otherwise constrained from doing them.

We can discard the first case. The other three quadrants are almost never empty, and if they are, you are probably at a liminal passage where some philosophical reflection should be put into the I/NU quadrant to occupy it.

The tired/constrained case is real enough, but usually maps to trivial stuff that will never matter much. For example, David Allen recommends doing things like reloading staplers when you are too brain-dead to do anything else. It is hard to think of situations for normal people where an empty stapler could be the make/break factor in a critical situation. You’d have to think up McGwyver scenarios.

So that’s NI/NU noise. It needs to be cleared away.

The PI/PU radar

I find it useful to draw a diagonal slash through the NI/NU quadrant like so, and maintain a separate awareness of the Potentially Important/Potentially Urgent stuff.


This is stuff around which I like to maintain high situation awareness. Minor shifts in the state of play could affect these items.

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  1. I recently read in a military textbook about a phrase called an officer’s “priority of neglect.” Thought this was an apt place to share it, I like how it frames the I/U->PI/PU->NI/NU spectrum in a reverse way from a typical “prioritization up” perspective.

  2. Alexander Boland says

    This seems to map to your 2×2 grid for thinking styles. NI/NU is opportunistic (and in that sense has a place in one’s plans.) I/U would be procedural, NI/U would be reactive, and NU/I would be deliberative.

    Yes, this is a bit of a Procrustean bed, but I thought the parallel was worth bringing up. The reactive/procedural part is the one that still feels debatable, but I’d say that we center our actions on the routine of making sure we get done what’s urgent and important, and we react to what has a penalty but is not about opportunity.

    • Hmm… I am afraid I don’t quite see it. Does seem pretty forced.

      • Alexander Boland says

        My rationale came from this question that dominated the post: “Why should we do things that are NI/NU?” The answer to me seems to be that if you’re only doing things that are either urgent or important, you’re just optimizing. NI/NU tasks are opportunistic by nature, coming from the slack in our daily lives and allowing us to pepper some irregularity on what we do.

        Then after that it hit me that things that are I/NU are things that we have to think about and are matters of long term advantage in the face of things that are more immediately pressing. There’s no real stimulus on the surface to get us to do I/NU tasks, so it requires that we come to the decision by actively thinking about where we want to be in the longer run.

        U/NI tasks seem to generally be responses to squeaky stimuli. Responding to those is relatively knee-jerk, since we suddenly think “oh crap, I have to send my timesheet today!” As for U/I tasks, they’re such a given that they seem to be the sort of thing where we’re not reacting to sudden information but we aren’t making our decision based on abstract thinking either.

        So less an analogy and more that each one does seem to have an implied mode of enactment. I think it also suggests that we shouldn’t always just wait for NI/NU to go to another quadrant. Reading is always on my NI/NU quadrant (though it really is more I/NU for creative types), but I know that were I to never take time out of my day to do it, that my creative muscles would slowly atrophy. We can reduce drag with I/NU tasks, but in order to make sure we can recharge our thrust engines, we need to have times where plans take a backseat to serendipity.

        I thought there might be some deeper logic about enactments that this analogy would bring about, but sadly this is all I got.

        • Ah, okay, it is clearer now.

          There probably is a deeper unifying thing somewhere. As you might recall, the logic for the 4 patterns diagram was “where is the information coming from?”

          Here, if we view priority assessments a kind of information as well, some synthesis may be possible. I’ll see if I can figure it out.

  3. Worth noting that this based on a fairly narrow scope of ‘stuff to get done’. I imagine that things like ‘listen to all those Cory Doctorow podcasts I just downloaded’ aren’t in your grid anywhere — but if they were, they’d be in the bit shaded grey. Still, that IS going to get done (what else am I going to do while I’m biking to work).

    Not sure if this is silly to point out or not. Seems like maybe not, since I’m looking for a way to organize *all* of the things I do (including ones like that, or other leisure, etc.).

  4. I think that falls in the ‘reloading stapler’ category. GTD has 3 selection filters for a next task, in order: context, energy and priority.

    For the ‘biking’ context, those podcasts bubble to the top because everything else gets filtered out.

    I like silence, so I’d probably drop podcasts though. But others seem to like filling up such constrained quasi-idle brain time with more fodder.

  5. NI/NU noise classifications need periodic revisitation to guard against sudden, non-obvious warps to I/U.

    Example: road flares for your car. If you live in a flat place with ubiquitous wide shoulders, then it may be ‘reloading stapler’ territory. But a simple change of scenery causes a wholesale shift.

    I still remember when the sudden insight hit me a decade ago on a winding California mountain road with frequent blind turns and no guardrail: If my car were to break down at this exact moment, it could very well kill me, the occupants of the next car to come along, or both of us.

    A simple $20 pack of road flares completely transforms this scenario into one where the next party to come along probably helps!

    At some point, I’d argue that philosophically, this involves questions of free will. I happen to believe that we actually have much less control over ourselves and the world than we think we do. We have very little wiggle room, but the world is a very chaotic system that is very sensitive to initial inputs. Sometimes small decisions are highly amplified well after the fact.

    Decision (months prior): repair household item instead of replace. Decision (months prior): purchase superglue multi-pack instead of single tube.

    Decision: Go outside and trim out-of-control roses (reduce drag). Inflection point: a passing jogger’s aging running shoe literally de-treaded itself as she passed by the front of my house. It was the strangest thing I’d ever seen.

    “Have a seat and I’ll grab a fresh tube of superglue.” The long reach of minor efforts may be what Mr. Allen implicitly recognizes in his somewhat mysterious stapler reloading advice.

    • Great point.

      Yes, a subtle and unnoticed change in context is one of the most dangerous things in the world. It’s kinda like shuffling the 2×2.

      Some context shifts arrive with a lot of fanfare so you have the cues to change stuff around. But others seem like they are just part of your normal everyday life when they are not.

      It’s like people who keep chimps or tigers as “pets” and are then surprised to be attacked suddenly one fine day.

      I’ve thought about how we all need to have a few different gears in life (or maybe homeland security type alert levels) where we run through a checklist of NI/NU and change things.

  6. Notwithstanding the (R) symbol affixed to this famous quadrant, it certainly was a popular time management concept before Covey.

    If one can handle the thinking needed for the added layer of PI/PU, one could further consider PNI/PNU near the top and right edges of the NI/NU block on the other sides of it. This is useful to consider when somebody has an overflowing plate and is applying this grid to prioritize. It may help to think of this as swapping some PI/PU with some PNI/PNU items.

    • Hmm… PNI/PNU is another interesting way of reversing the model, like Joseph Kelly’s “priority of neglect.”

  7. Strangeattractor says

    But if you get rid of the Not Important, Not Urgent quadrant, where will all the procrastination go?