As I was doing a bit of fall cleaning on a recent Saturday, I found a copy of an article entitled, “Tyranny of the Urgent,” by Charles Hummel. The article is taken from his book of the same title written in 1967. The points that Hummel makes in the article and the book are just as relevant today as they were when they were written nearly 50 years ago.
In fact, the issue of most people being overly busy and wishing for a thirty-hour day is probably more relevant today than it was in the 1960s. Back then, we did not have smartphones barking at us twenty-four hours per day. We also did not have email coming in at the rate of 50 to 100 per day or more, and we were not reachable by phone no matter where we were.
Technology has made the demands on our time a nonstop battle. It is easy to end up in a lifestyle where we feel that we must constantly respond to every phone call, text, email, or social media push notification immediately. And, while doing this, we need to interact properly with the people we are with.
The result is that, if we don’t take control of the urgent, we will lose control of our time and our life. Instead of focusing our time on the people most important to us and on our priorities, we allow the day-to-day urgencies of our lives to rule us. If left unchecked, these can eventually destroy our satisfaction with our lives.
Hummel’s article suggests that the problem is not a shortage of time. Instead, it is a problem of priorities. The trap of the urgent is that we can work really hard, to the point of exhaustion, but not accomplish anything meaningful. Hard work does not hurt us. If we work on a meaningful project for long hours and complete it, we may be weary, but we will also have a sense of achievement and joy.
However, as we work long hours reacting to the urgent – and particularly urgent things that are not related to our priorities – we will be weary and frustrated. Eventually we will experience a sense of failure as we recognize that we have spent a lot of time and hard work doing things that are not important.
Hummel shares the following quote in his book, “Your greatest danger is letting the urgent things crowd out the important.” Another quote from his book puts it this way, “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done.” How sad and how true.
Our lives show that there is a constant tension between the urgent and the important. Unfortunately, most of the time important things don’t announce themselves or break into our routine with interrupting messages. Often important things don’t need to be done today or this week.
But the urgent screams at us for immediate action. It seduces us into thinking that if we don’t answer that phone call, or respond immediately to a text, that we are letting someone down. We can think that if we don’t answer email before the end of the day, or listen to all voicemails, we are not doing our job.
Answering the demands of the urgent is not the pathway toward success in our vocation or our personal lives. Living life with an inherent need to respond to the urgent is not a formula for success. Rather, it leads to frustration, failed relationships, and unfulfillment. It leads to a lack of success.
Is there an escape? Can we take control of the urgent and live our life without the urgent dictating how we live? Fortunately, the answer is yes. A resounding yes!
What are the practical steps we can take to avoid our life becoming a monument to the destructive tyranny of the urgent?
The first thing we can do is start each day with a period of quiet reflection. If you are a spiritual person, start the day with prayer about the priorities of the day and ask for help staying on track with your priorities. If you do not pray, spend time reflecting on your day and what really needs to be done.
During the rest of your quiet time, make a list of the one thing – or at most, two to three things – that you absolutely must accomplish today. Once you determine this, look at your schedule for today. Have you allocated enough time to get these most important things done? If not, adjust your schedule. Cancel meetings or tasks that are not really important.
In addition, on a daily basis, make a commitment to not allow interruptions to run your day. If your mobile phone rings and the number is not in your contacts, let it go to voicemail. Don’t return texts and voicemails every time you get one. Batch these during the day so you are not being interrupted over and over again throughout the day.
As urgent things come up during the day, revisit the important things you identified in your morning quiet time. Is the interruption – the urgent thing – more important than the priorities you set for the day? If not, don’t allow the interruption to change your priorities. Stick with your priorities and guard what is important to you.
The cost of allowing the tyranny of the urgent to run your professional life is nowhere near as costly as it is to allow urgent things to run your personal life when you are home and with your family. It is exceptionally easy to be busy with work things via your smart phone and your home computer when you are with your spouse, significant others, and your children.
However, nothing has a greater cost than spending time on seemingly important interruptions and urgent matters when you are with your loved ones. Woe to the father or mother who thinks that they can answer emails on their mobile phone while spending “quality” time with their children. Perhaps the mother or father of a toddler can get away with this for a while when their child is young. But as that child grows older, the resentment that will build will convince the child that their parent loves their work and the financial benefits it brings more than they love the child. And the same is true with regard to spouses or significant others.
Nothing is more important than the time you spend with the people you love. Exchanging the urgent, even in the name of career or financial success, is a mistake that you will regret. Unfortunately, the repercussions of such a poor choice often don’t reveal themselves until long after the damage has been done.
Eliminating the tyranny of the urgent is conceptually easy to do. It means focusing on important things and not allowing urgent things to get you off track. Identifying one to three important things each day and sticking to them will cause you to take actions to not let the urgent intervene.
Dealing with urgent things throughout the day can make you feel like you are important and successful. But it is a false success. In fact, you will – at some point in the future – realize that you have wasted your time on unimportant things while important things and relationships have suffered.
Getting out of the urgent trap requires a decision. If you decide that you will focus on what is important each day and not let the tyranny of the urgent run your life, you will be on your way to a fulfilling and successful life.