Marilyn M. Barnewall
June 17, 2009
Successful people know when to stop doing the important so they can take care of the necessary… and the two are seldom the same.
I learned this from a twenty-year research project on which I embarked in the 1970s. I first began researching successful people while employed by a bank and continued that research when I started my bank consulting company. I eventually had the input of more than 5,000 affluent, successful people. There were, by the way, affluent people I did not consider “successful” who took part in the study. I learned from them, too. The two groups provided an interesting contrast.
So, what’s the difference between important and necessary?
Cooking dinner is important. Shopping is necessary. Calling your Mom to wish her a happy birthday is important. Paying the phone bill is necessary.
Staying informed so you know what’s coming is necessary. Being prepared for whatever you believe is coming is important.
When people make decisions about any circumstance facing them, they either make a decision that walks them squarely through life… or around it. Either way, a decision has been made. When you make a choice, it is a moment of truth. This is the point at which your character and competence are tested. Think of Captain C.B. “Sully” Sullenberger when he put U.S. Airways Flight 1549 safely in the Hudson River. He knew the difference between important versus necessary and he certainly had his competence tested.
Another example: My 99-year-old mother for years talked about establishing a family trust. While she was in her 80s, my brother and I found an attorney who specialized in family trust law. He was available to come to the house so she would not have to go to him. His fees were quite reasonable.
The thought of having to list all of her property and assigning them to the ownership of the trust overwhelmed her. My brother and I offered to do the work for her. Mom chose to avoid doing anything. She had too many important things to do, she said. She didn’t have time or energy for the necessary. She wasn’t ready, she said. At what age does one get ready? It’s called avoidance behavior… avoiding unpleasant tasks. It’s called living around life rather than through it.
It’s hard to learn when to stop doing the important to take care of the necessary. It’s also hard to make yourself live through rather than around life. Not all challenges are enjoyable.
I have known a lot of successful people. I have also known those who had the capacity to succeed but just couldn’t put it together. They tended to be people whose priorities were set in stone once established. Or, they were people who simply refused to prioritize their lives. They had no priority structure. They had difficulty moving from the important to the necessary then back to important because they never identified the difference between the two.
Making your life better depends on your ability to do precisely that: assess the difference between what is important and what is necessary.
If we write down the most significant things we have been avoiding, it can help us understand why we leave some things unfinished. Many of us write such a list annually and call it “New Year’s Resolutions.”
a speech or a press conference is important. Submitting your tax data
on time is necessary.
If someone had taught this to Timothy Geithner, the speeches he gives and press conferences he holds today would be far more credible.
If we do not know what is important versus what is necessary, how can we establish meaningful priorities? How can we set realistic performance objectives? Maybe Geithner’s problem in finding solutions to the nation’s ailing economy result from the same short-coming. Maybe he still doesn’t know the difference between important and necessary. He seems to leave a lot of “necessaries” out of the process.
If you avoid doing the necessary – paying your taxes – because you’re too busy doing the important, you put everything at risk for a moment in time. You can recapture what you lose at work… make the work up. Lost reputation, however, once gone cannot be reclaimed. People try; almost all fail.
Had either political party been taking care of the necessary rather than egoistically focusing on the important, a certificate of live birth would have been required of Barack Obama before allowing him to become a candidate for President of the United States. The question of “On which country’s Passport did you travel as a college student?” would have been answered.
One of the biggest problems people have when seeking long-term success is the ability to prioritize well… then change priorities quickly when a less important but necessary item arises. It is very important to focus, but even focus must be flexible. We all must drop the important things on our priority lists to take care of necessaries.
If you have a family, there are certain necessary things that must be included in your list of priorities. With babies, it’s important to change diapers regularly, but it is necessary to love and feed them. With high school kids living at home, it’s tempting to try and be their pals. It is necessary to remember who the parent is… and important to not try and be their best buddy. Otherwise, you run the risk of giving advice to your kids that makes you popular – but a parent more focused on your own ego needs than your children’s welfare.
Most people deal better with one category than the other. Some people are more comfortable living with their “important” rather than their “necessary” self. Which are you? If you understand this one very important part of self-discovery, it can make your life more meaningful.
Is your family important to you? Or, is it necessary? It’s different for different people. How you prioritize your time for family determines which it is for you.
When people who have succeeded in business retire, they often have difficulty learning to do the necessary rather than the important. With retirement, “important” gets redefined. Learning to change gears and redefine important versus necessary as a retiree was difficult for me. I no longer had to worry about what airplane I was catching, at what time, in what city, at what airport… I had to develop an entirely different set of priorities.
Priorities are the first thing I think of each morning when I wake up… well, they are the first thing after I say good morning to God and thank Him for giving me another day on His earth. I find it interesting that the closer I get to meeting my Maker, the higher on my list of priorities saying “good morning” and “good night” to Him become. That’s one function that is both important and necessary!
Once you know what is important versus what is necessary in your life, once you have used that information to determine your objectives, you can set reasonable, achievable goals.
You need short-term (one-year) and long-term (three-to-five year) goals. The purpose of short-term goals is to provide momentum. Anything on this list should be achievable within one year. It is with this list you will need the greatest flexibility with priorities.
Long-term goals provide direction. When you know your final destination, it is far easier to make intelligent decisions about short-term priorities. It helps determine what is important versus what is necessary, too. Long-term objectives may change during the five-year term, but it is still a “semi-final destination.” When we reach destinations, a new long-term plan needs to be created to keep us on track for future objectives.
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If I know where I want to be in five years, it makes the priorities I set based on the choices available to me during years one through four far easier and more realistic.
What is important in your life? What is necessary?
Remember, keeping necessary wheels oiled makes important easier to achieve.
© 2009 Marilyn M. Barnewall - All Rights Reserved
Marilyn Barnewall received her graduate degree in Banking from the University of Colorado Graduate School of Business in 1978. She created the first wealth creation (credit-driven) private bank in America in the 1970s. Prior to her 21-year banking career, she was a newspaper reporter, advertising copywriter, public relations director, magazine editor, assistant to the publisher, singer, dog trainer, and an insurance salesperson and manager.
She was named one of America's top 100 businesswomen in the book, What It Takes (Dolphin/Doubleday; Gardenswartz and Roe) and was one of the founders of the Committee of 200, the official organization of America's top 200 businesswomen. She can be found in Who's Who in America (2005-08), Who's Who of American Women (2006-08), Who's Who in Finance and Business (2006-08), and Who's Who in the World (2008).