Have you ever wished for a thirty-hour day?
Charles E. Hummel’s classic 1967 essay “Tyranny of the urgent” starts with this fundamental question. As project managers all of us have been through times when the 24 hours in the day don’t seem enough. We wish for a few more hours to finish all the tasks, clear the pileup of emails, spend time with our friends or family or simply catch up on some sleep.
The extra time would relieve us of the tremendous stress under which we live in such times. But would it really solve our worries. Or is it just a wish that even if granted would lead us to nothing.
As Hummel points out, our dilemma is deeper than the shortage of time; it is basically the problem of priorities. We constantly struggle to maintain the balance between the urgent and the important. The tyranny of the urgent makes sure that the important is clouded out and put to the backburner. Doing detailed planning for the upcoming phase is very important but a critical milestone tomorrow is at risk too and more often than not, there is no choice but to focus on the urgent leaving the important unattended – till it becomes urgent.
This is such an irony. If more important things were handled on time when they should be, then we would have less urgent but we don’t and so we have the opposite. The important are postponed time again for the urgent, creating more urgent ones.
We have become slaves to the tyranny of the urgent. We need to break the jinx and be free.
But is there an escape from this? Is there a way to turn the wheel and move from the cycle of waste to the cycle of value?
There are no quick formulas. Everyone will need to find their own path but a few pointers could help.
Become Aware – Knowing and realizing there is a problem is the first and the most important step. Observe yourself and take a minute before jumping into a new urgent task that hits.
Ask the right questions – It does not have to be a detailed analysis always. Most of the time just pausing and asking the right questions and introspecting will help to identify and choose the important from the urgent.
Evaluate and Introspect – C.H Greenwalt, when he was President of DuPont, said, “One minute spent in planning saves three or four minutes in execution.”. Every week we need to plan a time when to introspect on overall priorities, upcoming activities and identify what could be become urgent in coming weeks. The need to stop and plan cannot be over emphasized.
Continue the effort – It wont happen suddenly and definitely not overnight. Be patient. We need to keep on the path and continue to chose important more often. It’s a habit and it will take time to be free from it.
Urgent cannot be wished away – We will not always be able to choose important over urgent. The reality of life exists and cannot be wished away. Making the differentiation between the seemingly urgent and the real urgent would give us more time.
We will never be able to focus on all the important ones neither handle all the urgent. The key to freedom from the tyranny is to find the balance and tilt the weighing scale on the side of the important.
Let the journey begin.
Happy Independence !!
“Tyranny of the Urgent” essay by Charles Hummel 1967
Image courtesy : Arjan Richter