Tyranny Of The Urgent Essay

Several months ago, I spoke to a large group of military officers and contractors. My topic was “How to Shave Ten Hours Off Your Work Week.” In my speech, I provided seven tools for achieving greater productivity and restoring work-life balance.

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My fifth suggestion was to “schedule time to actually work.” This is one of those ideas that seems so obvious when you say it out loud. However, it is not widely practiced, I can assure you.

In fact, after my speech, one of the senior officers came up to me and said, “I never thought to schedule time for myself. I can see now that this one idea could dramatically reduce my workload.”

Yes, indeed. Imagine actually doing your work—at work, rather than dragging it home to do in the evenings.

In order to do this, I simply schedule blocks of time called “Office Work.” These are essentially appointments with myself. I reserve this time for working on routine tasks or important projects.

Before I started doing this several years ago, my time quickly got gobbled up with the “tyranny of the urgent.” (Charles E. Hummel wrote a powerful essay on this topic by the same title in 1967. It had a profound impact on me as a young professional.)

The bottom line is this: if you don’t have a plan for your time, someone else does. The first one to claim it wins!

Knowing this, I use Sunday evenings to review my upcoming calendar as part of my weekly review. In the process, I make sure that I have blocked out sufficient time to actually do the work I have agreed to do in all the other meetings I attend.

During this scheduled block of time, I shut my office door, turn off my email and Twitter feed, turn on some instrumental music, and get to work. If someone asks to book a meeting during that time, I can honestly say, “I’m sorry, but I already have a commitment at that time. How about _____?”

The commitment is, of course, to myself.

Questions: Have you ever tried scheduling time with yourself? How has that worked for you?

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In the 1960s, Charles Hummel published a little booklet called Tyranny of the Urgent, and it quickly became a business classic.  In it, Hummel argues that there is a regular tension between things that are urgent and things that are important—and far too often, the urgent wins.

In the business world, this means that demands of your boss, your client, or petty office relationships can often take priority over things that actually matter, like thoroughly completing a task before starting the next one, or building unity in a work team that would instill camaraderie and longevity.

The urgent, though less important, is prioritized, and therefore the important is put on the back burner.

This is no different in home life. We focus on the urgent things in front of us more often than we intend, and by bedtime, the things we really care about—the important—were barely given a glance.

Here’s what this looks like.

The urgent

“Urgent” looks different for different families, in different seasons, and even in different hours of the day.  Some examples might be:

  • replying to email
  • changing an exploded diaper
  • fixing and kissing an “owie”
  • paying bills by their due date
  • running kids to ballet practice or karate lessons
  • watching your neighbor’s children while she desperately runs to the hospital
  • cleaning up a spill
  • gathering up the clutter before your spouse returns home from work
  • going to a scheduled extended family gathering
  • getting dinner on the table at a decent time

None of these things are evil.  Yet they need to be done either quickly, or at a designated time.


Photo by Andreanna Moyer

The important

This list might look like:

  • spending time with your spouse
  • teaching your children to read
  • fostering a spirit of creativity at home
  • becoming debt-free
  • only having that which you need
  • building relationships with your neighbors
  • spending quality time outdoors
  • taking care of your health
  • reusing an item instead of buying new

Where the urgent and important intersect

There are times when the urgent and important are the same thing, and it’s a good thing to focus on this task at hand when it rears its head.

Your bills are due, and you’ve got a long-term plan to become debt-free.  My guess is that paying bills on time is a small part of that plan, so focusing on them today?  Good.

Your neighbor, a single mother with two kids, could use more friends in her life, and to be frank, so could you.  You’d like to get to know her better, and to let her know you’re there for her when she needs it.  So when her toddler splits open his knee and needs stitches asap?  Yes, it’s probably a good idea to drop your afternoon plans and help watch her oldest child.

Where the urgent and the important collide

It gets ugly when the urgent and the important head-butt in a crash collision, and the twisted cacophony makes it awfully difficult to distinguish between the two.  The urgent looks like the important, and vice versa.


Photo by Kevin Dooley

You’d like to slow down and have more quality time reading and playing with your children. But afterschool commitments mean that instead of an hour at the park getting quality outdoor time and exercise with your kids, you have to play taxi and get everyone to their lessons.

In your family, it’s high priority to have dinner together as a family, around the table. But at five o’clock, dinner’s boiling on the stove, your preschooler is whining that she’s bored, and then your mom calls.

You answer the phone because you don’t want your mom to get upset, and instead of letting your daughter solve her own problem, you toss in a DVD to keep her at bay. All the while, dinner has charred.

You want a tighter rein on your finances, and you’d like to teach your kids the basics of money management.  But when it’s costume time for the school play, you’re too busy playing taxi, fighting the clutter at home, serving as “team mom” out of guilt, or working at the office 50 hours a week so you can maintain your lifestyle.

So, you don’t have time to make a costume.  Sure it would be cheaper, more fun, and teach more life lessons to craft a chicken costume out of things around the house.  But because of time, it’s “easier” to plop down cash and order one online.

Making life work for you

None of these scenarios are evil, mind you. There are times when it’s best to pay for a service over doing it yourself, or to spend quality time with your daughter and order pizza for dinner that night. I’m all over that.

It becomes an issue when this is the modus operandi in your home, and you honestly don’t want it to. When the urgent always trumps the important.


Photo by D. Sharon Pruitt

For me, I keep this in check with I open my email inbox.  I almost always have over a hundred unopened emails waiting for me.  But they’re not as high a priority as other things in my life, and I don’t open my emails unless I have the time to answer them right then.  So they wait until I can get to them.

Turns out, life goes on when emails just sit there.

Step back for a few minutes today, and look at the next few days ahead. Are there obvious urgencies? Are they truly urgent? Then make them a priority.

But are there urgencies disguised as something important? Does that urgent obligation rob you of time or money you’d rather spend on something truly important to you? See if you can let that urgency fall back in line, and let the important take priority.

It’s stressful, it’s incongruent, and it’s no fun to let the urgent rule our lives.  It’s why we feel like we’re living someone else’s life. It’s why we want to stand up on the table and scream, “Enough!” to all the chaos.

Prioritizing important over urgent helps quell that chaos.

Be intentional with your time. Release the guilt you have about fulfilling all the urgencies in your life.  And make it a priority to prioritize at least one truly important thing this week.

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