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The tyranny of the urgent

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 thenSo 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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  1. Melissa Gorzelanczyk

    I love the idea of singling out what’s urgent and what’s truly important to us.

    Cheers to a happy Monday full of really important things!

  2. Rachel (Hounds in the Kitchen)

    Hmm…I had never thought about time conflicts in exactly this way. I do focus on the important as often as I can.

    One thing I do is not answer the phone. Almost all the time I send it to voicemail. Some friends and family find that annoying, but they have learned that I am more likely to respond to an email or text because I can do it on my time.
    .-= Rachel (Hounds in the Kitchen)´s last blog ..My Loves =-.

    • Mandy

      This works for me too – we have caller ID and if the caller is not identifiable or I know that the caller is wanting to just chat (when I have just walked in the door, need to get supper on the go, washing needs to come in etc etc) – I revert to voicemail. Once the important items are done in the evening, I will call back to chat – when I have the time and all is calm, so I can carry on!!

  3. ClassiclyAmber

    Wow! That was a very powerful article! This is something that I’m working on myself…and I feel like having a better schedule in place will help me. It will help me see on paper the things that are urgent verses the things that are important.


  4. Vina

    Great article! The urgent and the important often DO collide.

    And I think most of it has to do with cultural expectations. If the urgent rules our lives on a daily basis, I think we really need to ask ourselves why and design our lives so that the important is woven into our rhythms and tasks.
    .-= Vina´s last blog ..The Early To Bed, Early To Rise Myth =-.

  5. Jenni at My Web of Life

    This post is timely for me for a couple of reasons.
    1. I’m functioning on 2 hours of sleep after caring for a vomiting 2-year-old all night. Now I’m waiting to see if this bug is just a ticking time bomb that is going to explode through the rest of the family.
    2. Today is Family Day in Canada and is supposed to be a time to focus on some quality time with loved ones. In fact, it is a required holiday here. I’m hoping to use some of that time with the important people in my life (just after I have a nap).
    .-= Jenni at My Web of Life´s last blog ..Has Your Family Been Outside Today? =-.

  6. Angela @ Homegrown Mom

    This is very much true in the culture where I live, Southern California. It creeps back up on us so easily, so I make it a point to go over my priorities and things I’ve committed to regularly and make sure that I am still putting what is important first.

    I think just getting busy in general and not taking time each day to plan and pray over my day is the easiest way to slip into doing what seems urgent. Great post!
    .-= Angela @ Homegrown Mom´s last blog ..Staying on Task with Google Calendar =-.

  7. Dad is in the House

    Great article. You know, all that stuff seems really theoretical but thinking through it like you’ve just done has been really helpful to me. Neglecting that important stuff will really, really mess you up. Just having a list of it around to look at once in awhile is a big help–at the end of a long day, you might have energy to *do* something but not enough to both think about it and do it.

  8. Rose

    And lets not forget the things that are not important or urgent but still manage to steal our time from us.

  9. kitter

    Oh my gosh, thank you so much for this. Just doing a little analysis around what’s truly important, and what’s “just” urgent will make a huge difference around here. They’ve been muddled in my head, which is leading to some anxiety (which makes for a cranky, ineffective Mama).
    Thank you!!

  10. Sheila Gregoire

    I know what you mean!

    The other night I was snuggling with my hubby, having a grand ole’ time, when the phone rang. I answered it, and ended up talking to a friend I didn’t really want to talk to for about 15 minutes.

    The next day the kids and I were reading together when the phone rang again. And again I broke our rhythm and answered it. That’s when I decided that’s what call display is for! Now I let it ring.
    .-= Sheila Gregoire´s last blog ..Do You Ever Think About Heaven? =-.

  11. Simple Homeschool~Jamie

    Wow, Tsh, this is very timely for me.

    Especially the email thing, which is just really starting to get to me lately. I need to figure out a better system, otherwise it really does seem like a time sucker. I’m going to check out your email post to get some ideas.

    .-= Simple Homeschool~Jamie´s last blog ..Weekend Links & Giveaway Winner =-.

  12. Andrea

    Wonderful, wonderful post, and one I needed to read. I am a stay-at-home mom and an entrepreneur running a home-based business. Everything always seems important AND urgent. When I stop a minute, though, to read something like this, it helps me step back and gain perspective. So now I’m going to sign off of the computer and go make bread with my kids!

  13. Mendy

    This was a great, well thought out post. I have an example to share that happened just last night. I am a single mom so finding time for just me seems impossible, but last night my kids were watching TV, quietly, and in seeming harmony with one another. I got to do some reading, and internet surfing. Two hours later they were doing the same thing. I decided to get up, take them to the table, have them each pick out two books, and we all read together. I don’t want my kids brains to be consumed by t.v. any time they are bored or it’s too cold/rainy outside, and even though a day like this was rare, I decided to “disturb the peace” with a spontaneous quality family activity. It was one of those moments where if I had not done what I had, I know guilt would have come over me. We had a great evening together. My urgent moments seem to be my own alone time, but it is not worth sacrificing for “our time” together.

  14. Nicole at Burning Bushes

    The urgent is disguised as important when kids are crying, extended family are calling or emailing, or something makes my heart race.

    I can often spend a great deal of energy on something because it causes me stress even if it’s not all that important. A quickly beating heart or feeling stressed is a great indicator to me that my priorities are off and I’m spending my time on the urgent, not the important. Here’s a post I wrote about getting my priorities straight to keep the important front and center.

    Such a clear and insightful post. Thank you!
    .-= Nicole at Burning Bushes´s last blog ..How Deep the Father’s Love for Us =-.

  15. Marcus

    This is just the sort of thing we need to be reminded of!
    Even when we think we know the truth of it we can still let everyday life get the better of us. And, actually, often all we need do is make a decision to do one thing rather than another!

  16. Kara

    Our family mission statement is a guide I rely on a lot when making priorities. I know my husband would rather come home to a house full of happy people, not a clean house. Ideally, I like him to come home to both, but you know …. 🙂

    What is essential during one week, or one day, may not be the next week. And, that is okay, too.

    Great post!
    .-= Kara´s last blog ..More Than Words: Simple Ways to Show Your Kids You Love Them =-.

  17. Erica Cosminsky

    Wow. This is a daily battle for me. My 2 year old seems to want more and more attention everyday and especially if I sit down to concentrate on something. We have managed to keep her out of day care until now. But some days I wonder if I am going to have to get her out from under my wing, just so she will see that not every whim she has is urgent. My biggest concern is that her turning into a brat.

    Some days I feel like just dealing with her doubles the amount of time I am working and it’s kind of a relief to know I’m not alone at it.

  18. Mary K Weinhagen

    I really appreciate this timely reminder…

    Just goes to show that it’s not always about the schedule…. it’s about having the flexibility and quick-mindedness to get clear about the distinctions between ‘urgent’ and ‘important’ and knowing that’s important too! 😉

    Thank YOU!

    –Mary K

    ¸..· ´¨¨)) -:¦:-
    ¸.·´ .·´¨¨))
    ((¸¸.·´ ..·´ -:¦:-
    -:¦:- ((¸¸.·´* Light


  19. MB Squared

    Excellent post, and timely for those of us who are in your book club and reading the chapter about “Putting First Things First”. Now, that my family as created our Mission Statement, we have a place to start.

  20. Evelyn Vincent

    Thanks for the excellent post! During recent months and years what has been at the top of my priority list is which tings can I remove from my life so I’m not always swamped with ‘important’ and ‘urgent’ things – trying to simplify things so I can enjoy the jurney at least some of the time.
    .-= Evelyn Vincent´s last blog ..Free Webinar: Get Ready for Gardening Season! =-.

  21. Beth in Tampa

    Great post! I can relate to the balancing act. I barely had time to breathe after my second son was born, my husband’s layoff and my faster-than-expected return to work. Once I decided to unplug when I got home from work, life became much easier.

  22. Sarah Clachar

    One of the strategies we use so that the important stuff doesn’t always go on the back burner is to break it down. So even if something urgent comes up, we’ll still spend 15 minutes doing an important thing first – even if its not the full hour we wanted.

    Because often with the important stuff it’s building it up piece by piece that makes the difference. So the 15 minutes we spend playing tag to get some exercise . . . the 30 minutes I spend with my kids when they come home from school before I go back to meeting a deadline that’s tying me to my desk . . . going over vocab word for 10 minutes.

    Sometimes we make important things huge in the time they take and so we never take the time to do them. We’re finding this strategy helps us keep them up front in our schedule. Esp. when other urgent matters intervene.
    .-= Sarah Clachar´s last blog ..Essential for Family Fitness, Home Gyms Let You "Sneak Some Extra In" =-.

  23. exhale. return to center.

    “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.”

    i love these words. i came to this realization myself — that “stressed out days with a stressed out mama and stressed out kids” were becoming the norm and i did NOT like it — so we began making some BIG changes in our home.

    the most important for us was doing a full house declutter as a family — and then making maintaining some sense of order and organization a priority.

    having an overly cluttered home made 100 little urgencies throughout the day — a missing a shoe (a five year old’s favorite shoe!)…missing car keys when we’re late to get to the doctor’s office…getting home late and hungry and opening the fridge/cupboard to learn that we are out of just about everything…and on and on….

    there are still days (like today) when the house is pretty chaotic. kids are sick. mama stayed up too late last night working and is dragging this morning. but this is no longer the norm. this is now simply a reminder of how much better it feels when we are well-rested and well-fed and able to focus on what is most *important* to our family.

    .-= exhale. return to center.´s last blog ..a (redefined) happy valentine =-.

  24. Polly

    With 5 kiddos under 7, we tend to major in urgent.

    I love this concept of separating out urgent from important and prioritizing things that way.

    I do think, though, as parents of little bitty ones, it is important that my husband and I realize that some of their urgents are important to them, even if they may not seem so high on our list, and need to be given the consideration we would want someone to give our importants.

    Thank you so much for this reminder!!
    .-= Polly´s last blog ..Ancient Reality Shows =-.

  25. Dawn

    Excellent post. I suffer from this all the time and it’s valuable information!

  26. Megan

    I am printing this out and putting it in my home notebook. SO GOOD.

  27. Marianne Strong

    I needed to read this because I so often have these confused. Thank you!
    .-= Marianne Strong´s last blog ..Our Other House =-.

  28. PS~Erin

    I was just lamenting about how my priorities keep getting messed up. I had to add a link to my post today, with hopes that more moms get to read this. Thank you!
    .-= PS~Erin´s last blog ..Snow Day(S)! =-.

  29. Tammy

    Its so nice to know that someone can put into words EXACTLY what I am struggling with; drop-in guests, phone calls, errands, etc – rather than the things that are more important to me; family game night, dinner together, date night w/hubby. Excellent article and thoroughly helpful.

  30. Christina

    Very inspiring an I’m actually guilty of what’s important to me. When I try and look back it’s not really important, it’s just hard to balance everything. Perhaps I find both equally important in different ways. I wish I could make life work for me. Thanks for posting such a great article.

  31. beth aka confusedhomemaker

    I need to focus more on the important. I have a hard time some days & before I know it I’ve allowed less important things or the things that really don’t matter in a long-term (or really even a short-term pov) take over.
    .-= beth aka confusedhomemaker´s last blog ..Snow Day! =-.

  32. Jade

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

  33. Carole

    Thank you for this — I’m just getting started (or trying to) with our first year of homeschooling, and also trying to be more intentional and be an actual Home Manager…wow that looks like a lot when I list it! Lol! This article really really helps me get more centered and see things much more clearly, even in the face of these big idealistic challenges.
    Thank you!!

  34. Kristina

    wow it’s wonderful to hear the tension so well described.

  35. Zuraimah


  36. Prerna

    Completely agree.. These days, am trying hard to strike a balance between the urgent and the important.. I don’t always do it right.. but I try:-)

  37. Heidi @ The Good Stuff Guide

    This was an excellent reminder for me today – thanks! I feel like I’ve been letting the important go a little lately. I’ve been really working on not being reactionary to things – slowing down and live truer to the principles I know are right. Thanks for this article!

  38. Living the Balanced Life

    This would be a very good example of when your important and your urgent collided! Great save though! This post is awesome and goes right along with a series I am teaching on my blog right now.
    I hope things settle for you a bit and I look forward to meeting you this week!

  39. Alison @ Femita

    Maybe not a new article, but it doesn’t lose any of its relevance. When things get hectic I try to keep calm, think in terms of priorities and not feel guilty about it. First things first, the rest can wait.

  40. rheagan

    What show did you interview with on NPR? I am a huge NPR fan, and would love to listen to your interview. Thanks!

  41. Alicia

    What a great way of looking at things! I’m going to make an effort to keep this in mind this week. Thanks! 🙂

  42. Steph (The Cheapskate Cook)

    Fabulous post, Tsh! Urgent things that undermine the important in my house would be… housework.
    I want our home to be warm, tidy, and inviting – especially since my husband really appreciates that when he gets home at night.
    But that should never take a priority over my kid and investing in quality time with my hero.
    And I’m often reminded of this when I find myself washing dishes in the evening while he works in the other room.
    Honestly, dishes will still be there in the morning (unfortunately, ha ;-))

  43. Cascia

    What a wonderful article. I think we can all learn from these tips. I know I have a difficult time prioritizing and managing my time.

  44. Maura

    I’m so glad you re-posted this Tsh! I missed it the first time. Gives me a new way to look at the week ahead.

  45. Jennifer

    I’m so glad you reposted this again. I am really struggling with this right now. After reading your post, I totally see that I am focusing on the urgent, not the important, most days. I may need to read this every day until my priorities get in order!

  46. Anna@The DIY Mom

    Haha, holding the baby as I read this and I think his diaper is about to explode soon. Better get off to do something urgent and in this case important too. Great article though, there is always that tension at home as in the work world.

  47. Taria

    I have heard of this concept before and it was an eye opener for me then, but also one I need to revisit. I felt like my whole summer as a stay-at-home mom was ruled by the urgent. And then when the school year started, it was ruled by the urgent again. These urgent things include swim practices, hockey practices, homework, phone calls from neighbors, neighbor kids wanting to play, emails, texts, etc. etc. Living in a neighborhood with LOTS of kids living in very close proximity is a blessing but also can be challenging. If I don’t have a plan, I sometimes feel like the plan is made for me by others because I don’t have a good reason to say no. I struggle between letting my kids play with their friends when there is free time and having peace in our home instead of chaos. I know a bit of both is probably best. Anyway, thank you for the good reminder! It gives me something to think about again!

  48. Dee

    For us, the urgent that often robs us from the important is HOMEWORK. I get home from picking my son up from school around 5:30pm, which leaves us 2½ hours until he should be in bed. Homework usually takes up the lion’s share of that (and because he has some learning differences, I have to be intrinsically involved in it). A good, well-rounded dinner at the table and quality family time often (read, almost always) gets crowded out.

  49. Heather

    My dad used to say “things that are urgent are not necessarily important”. Now I know he got it from “Tyranny of the Urgent”! (Now to get my hands on a copy –doesn’t appear that this will be an easy task). Thanks for the post.

  50. Nina

    We talk about that concept all the time at work, and how easy it is for the urgent to overpower the important. It becomes a catch-up cycle and the important issues get pushed to the side even their returns would probably yield so much better than the urgent needs.

    I read the book “The Whole Brain Child” and it talks about surviving and thriving. As parents, we survive, as you describe with the diapers and dealing with tantrums and such. And then we want our kids to thrive: we want them to grow into amazing human beings. The authors purport that the two can go hand in hand; that during times of survival, we can use those moments, teachable moments, to help our kids thrive.

    This has helped keep my sanity and prevented me from losing my mind at times. Every moment can serve a purpose bigger than the urgent.

  51. Christine Somers

    The challenge for a busy family is to slow down and clarify what is urgent vs important. In 1989, Stephen Covey published a business book titled 7 Habits of Highly Effective People…while it was influential in the world of business, it as was meaningful to me personally. The idea that the urgent can overwhelm the important is a more theme in his book also and he offers solutions to that tension.

  52. Stephanie

    It is great to meditate about this things. My husband and I are well aware that things like working out and spending time together are priorities. Of course, there are some days when we can’t spend hours together but we always make sure to spend at least one hour of quality together.

  53. Laura@frontporchfoodie

    Add to the lists: ‘reading bogs’ and ‘writing blogs’. Ah – the conundrums of life!

  54. Kelly

    Thank you for reposting this! I work in a group of new mamas, and it’s such a great reminder for all of us, so I just posted it to Facebook and tagged all of them so they’re sure to see it.

  55. Kelli

    THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU for this post! It has come at just the right time. As we’re trying to teach our almost 5 year old about the difference between emergencies and other needs, we often forget about the distinctions in our adult lives. Thanks for the clarification!

  56. Lynn Kaufman

    Hey Tsh!
    Got a logistical question for ya. I was trying to post a link from our facebook to your article on tyranney of the urgent. Having trouble getting it done from your blog. Suggestions? Looks like there’s not a FB option; one for twitter and Pin it at the bottom of the blog post. Tried the icons at the top but they are more like links.

  57. Hillary

    I love my phone, but man is it a time-sucker! I do best when I switch it off, plug it in the office to recharge, and ignore that it is there during family time. The only thing that gets me is that people EXPECT you to respond right away to their emails and texts, because we’ve become a community that’s so connected! It bugs me sometimes…

  58. priest's wife @byzcathwife

    One way to escape the ‘tryanny of the urgent’ is to plan ahead- my high school aged daughters go to the actual school building (high school and college classes) just Mondays and Wednesdays 7:30 to 5- and my relaxed homeschooled little ones need to be up and out with us by 7:15….this means packed lunches and early breakfasts are important and urgent and predictable! There is enough in life that is unpredictable…we can help ourselves by planning ahead for life’s crazisness when possible

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