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 like thoroughly completing a task before starting the next one, or building unity in a work team which 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. Far too often, we focus on the urgent things in front of us, and at the end of the day, the things we really care about — the important — were barely given a glance.
Here’s what this looks like.
Photo by Andreanna Moyer
A description of the urgent looks different for different families, in different seasons, and even in different hours of the day. Some examples might be:
- answering the phone
- replying to emails
- changing an exploded diaper
- fixing and kissing an “owie”
- getting bills paid 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
None of these things are evil. Yet they often need to be done quickly, or at least at a designated time.
It’s best to use something like your family’s purpose statement to describe your specific important things in life. But on a daily basis, 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, so 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
Photo by Kevin Dooley
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.
You’d like to slow down and have more quality time reading and playing with your children. But after school 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 mother 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 and contentment. 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
Photo by D. Sharon Pruitt
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.
But it becomes an issue when this is the modus operandi in your home. When the urgent always trumps the important.
For me, I always keep this in check with I open my email inbox. I almost always have over 100 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. It’s hard, but it’s okay.
I encourage you to step back for a few minutes today, and look at the week 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 coffee table and scream, “Enough!” to all the 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.
In your home, what does it look like when an urgency is disguised as something important? What do you do to combat the tendency to focus first on the urgent?
This post was first published on February 15, 2010.