Taming the “Tyranny of the Urgent”

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Aaron Hopper
  • 71st FTW Safety Office
Many Airmen lead incredibly busy lives, full of unfinished tasks. We often wish that we had more hours in the day to fit it all in. In our professional lives, budgets remain tight, the Air Force is shrinking, and we are challenged to do more with less.

Yet the demands on our time never seem to diminish. We are overdue on annual online training, our shop will be inspected next week, our co-worker just deployed (their work is now ours), our inboxes are full, and we recently accepted another Outlook invitation for a meeting whose purpose is a mystery.

In our personal lives, we rush to juggle kids' activities, clean the house, make ends meet with both parents working, attempt to resolve the latest family drama, and maybe, just maybe, fit in a workout. We work hard. We hurry to complete tasks. But we never seem to have time to finish our "to do" lists.

Moreover, when we collapse exhausted at the end of the day, we are not quite sure whether we spent our time working on the right things. We may even feel guilt or remorse over the way we spent our day or the things that we did not do.

Our problem, however, is not the length of a day, but rather the misdirection of our attention and priorities. Even if we had 48 hours in a day, we would quickly fill those hours with additional tasks. The additional time would not guarantee an unhurried or well-ordered life.

In 1967, Charles Hummel, a former president of Barrington College in Rhode Island, detailed this problem in a short essay that he called, "The Tyranny of the Urgent."

In it, he wrote that, "We live in a constant tension between the urgent and the important. The problem is that the important task rarely must be done today or even this week ... (but) the momentary appeal of (urgent) tasks seems irresistible and important, and they devour our energy."

Unfortunately, we live in a fast-paced, high-tech environment, where cell phones, email and social media relentlessly compete for our attention and invade the precious moments we set aside to deal with important matters.

Distractions are rampant and demands for our time are unending. In the midst of all of our busyness, how do we focus on the important and tame the "Tyranny of the Urgent?"

I have a few suggestions:

1. Identify your priorities. What is most important at home and at work? It could be a long-term project that is more important than two dozen unread emails in your inbox. It could be a talk with your teenager that is more important than the extra hour at work you need to meet an urgent suspense.

2. Schedule your priorities. Urgent suspenses always finds a way to shove aside the important suspenses when you fail to schedule priorities. If a new fitness goal is your top priority, then block off time on your calendar to work out

3. Don't manage priorities by emails or phone calls.

The fact that someone emails or calls you does not mean they require your immediate attention. Voice mail is a wonderful tool. Allow a caller to leave a message, and return the call when the important task is complete. In my home, for example, family meals are sacred. We almost never answer the phone or a text message during a meal, regardless of who is calling.

Do not feel the need to read or answer every email when it arrives or in the order it was received. Scan for priority messages, write down tasks that arrive by email, prioritize those tasks, then turn off the email and work your list in priority order.

I was assigned to the Pentagon when Gen. Mark A. Welsh became our new Chief of Staff. The first week on the job, he notified us that he checks email only twice per day and that we had to visit or call his office if we had a matter that was important enough to warrant his immediate attention. If it works for our Chief, it can work for us.

4. Reschedule the urgent. Once your priorities have been scheduled, it will be clear how much time and attention you can devote to urgent, but less important matters. Delegate, reschedule, refuse or request extensions for urgent tasks that are not truly important. If conflicts exist, or another shop believes their urgent request is more important than your priorities, use your chain of command to resolve and/or re-prioritize the conflicts.

5. Remain flexible. At times, there are phone calls and emails that genuinely demand our immediate attention and priority. Though fewer and further between than we might think, we must be able to identify new priorities and reorder our schedules to accommodate tasks that are both urgent and important.

The most important things in our lives are not always the most urgent things. We frequently and easily set aside important tasks to deal with those whose urgency appears to make them important. Our challenge is not so much the amount of time we have, but the way in which we spend that time.

As former astronaut Story Musgrave remarked during a lecture I once attended, "You have time in life to do anything you want, but not time to do everything you want."