The Urgent and the Important

The Assault of the UrgentThis week, I restarted work on a book that’s been ongoing for several years. I have written 42,000 words and I’m in the process of editing. I expect it will be several months at least before I’m ready to publish it. I’ve also started painting again. I let progress on these things stall out for too long—because I had more urgent things to work on.

As I writer, my schedule is under constant assault by a barrage of urgent things that demand my immediate attention. The need to defend the important against the tyranny of the urgent is perhaps the most crucial challenge that I deal with every day. The human temptation is to deal with the deadline-driven tasks first, but over time, I’ve come to find that the opposite is true.

When I focus on urgent tasks first, two problems arise:

  1. The best of my life’s energy is already spent by the time I get around to the important things, and
  2. I find more urgent tasks.

Urgent action items seem to reproduce like worms. When you cut a worm in half, you get two worms. Similarly, when I start diving into the thick of the urgent tasks of the day, I start thinking of more urgent tasks. They never end.

I have worked for multiple employers that had what I call a “fire drill culture.” You may have worked for a company where nothing gets any attention unless it’s a three alarm fire. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I thrive on this kind of culture. It’s addictive. It makes me feel needed and important when there’s an emergency waiting for me. But I really love the adrenaline rush that comes with blaring sirens and frantic motion. This addiction, as I’ve come to discover, distorts my thinking and my perception of the world. Once I start focusing my attention on urgency, I begin to see urgency everywhere.

We need a strategy to protect the important.

The urgent will protect itself—if it’s truly urgent. If a weighted deadline absolutely has to be met, you’ll meet it. You have no choice in the matter. However, the important will not protect itself. Our best and highest work—the work that we were made to do—will not press itself on us. We are free to put off doing what we are made to do for as long as we choose. I wonder if life was designed this way to give us the opportunity to strengthen the muscle of free will.

In any case, I have built my self-management system around the principle that my important work—my sacred work—needs to take precedence over the urgent work every day. That’s easier said than done, so here are a few places to start:

  1. Write down a list of those projects or tasks that are “important” but not “urgent.”
  2. Put a star next to the ones that you don’t have time for right now.
  3. Spend 15 minutes of each day doing one of the things on this list before you do anything else (especially before checking your email).

I’m turning over a new leaf this year—I’ve committed myself to prioritizing the important over the urgent as a way of life. Already, there’s a new spring to my step. Already, I feel a deeper sense of purpose taking root. I’m not making any radical changes to my daily routine. Instead, I’m focused on making small changes consistently.

I hope you will take on the challenge with me.

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