Can you Avoid the Tyranny of the Urgent?


So you get to work, say hello to your colleagues and after about 30 minutes you’ve caught up on the news, had a cup of coffee, and roughly mapped out the day.

The the phone starts ringing…. the emails come in…. the meeting requests start.

And all of a sudden, the energy leaks from your body as you realise that none of the wonderful and important things you were going to accomplish that day are taken over by urgent task after urgent task.

It has a name:  it’s called the Tyranny of the Urgent.

Charles Hummel kicked the phrase off in 1967 via an article of the same name, saying this:

Have you ever wished for a thirty-hour day?  Surely this extra time would relieve the tremendous pressure under which we live.  Our lives leave a trail of unfinished tasks.  Unanswered letters, unvisited friends, unwritten articles, and unread books haunt quiet moments when we stop to evaluate.  We desperately need relief.

But would a thirty-hour day really solve the problem?  Wouldn’t we soon be just as frustrated as we are now with our twenty-four allotment? A mother’s work is never finished, and neither is that of any student, teacher, minister, or anyone else we know.  Nor will the passage of time help us catch up.  Children grow in number and age to require more of our time.  Greater experience in profession and church brings more exacting assignments.  So we find ourselves working more and enjoying it less. . . .

Several years ago an experienced cotton mill manager said to me, “Your greatest danger is letting the urgent things crowd out the important.”  He didn’t realize how hard his maxim hit.  It often returns to haunt and rebuke me by raising the critical problem of priorities.

We live in constant tension between the urgent and the important.  The problem is that the important task rarely must be done today or even this week.  Extra hours of prayer and Bible study, a visit with the non-Christian friend, careful study of an important book: these projects can wait.  But the urgent tasks call for instant action—endless demands pressure every hour and day.

Now the text is self-evidently Christian focused.  However, from a day to day work perspective it sounds pretty familiar, doesn’t it?  Well it need not be you.

Identifying the problem is one thing, but trying to address it in our own lives is another.  Here are some thoughts from yours truly about how I try to keep the important on my priority list even when the urgent starts encroaching:

  • Make sure you take a moment to identify the urgent and the important – knowing what’s what is half the battle, rather than just randomly dancing from one thing to the next
  • Plan what important things MUST be done and then get them done.  Don’t let the urgent disrupt the important, because otherwise it will never happen
  • Consider whether any part of either the urgent or the important can be delegated?
  • Be realistic about what you can achieve in a day
  • Don’t let what is urgent or important be dictated to you by others (although I accept that sometimes this won’t be an option)
  • Focus – complete a task, then complete the next task.  Repeat.

What about you – are you a slave to the urgent?  If not – how do you go about making sure the important gets a look in?

Happy Lawyering!