The Tyranny of the UrgentA big part of setting and meeting your goals is avoiding being bogged down by a culture of constant urgency. The problem is that most of us don’t understand the difference between the urgent and the important. And once we do, we’ll recognize that the urgent is the enemy of the important. Barbell Logic CEO and Founder Matt Reynolds explains how to overcome the tyranny of the urgent.
The Tyranny of the Urgent
By: Matt Reynolds, Founder and CEO of Barbell Logic
“Busy” has replaced “good” as the default answer to the question of “How’s it going?”
We live in a culture of constant urgency. We work more hours than nearly any generation before us. We have meetings to go to, crises to manage, phone calls to answer and make, and texts and emails to send and reply to; we have dinner to pick up on the way home before turning around and taking our kids to practice; and we often crash into our beds at the end of the day exhausted, wondering where the day went and not entirely sure what we actually accomplished.
Urgent vs. Important
The problem is that most of us don’t understand the difference between the urgent and the important. And once we do, we’ll recognize that the urgent is the enemy of the important.
Urgent things require immediate attention. They put us on the defensive as we manage crises and people, causing us to react rather than proceed or methodically, and narrowing our focus. We often believe that urgent things are important, but most of the time, they’re not. In my own life, I often think of urgent things of robbing me of value and inducing anxiety.
Important things, on the other hand, bring us value. They contribute to our long-term goals, adhere to our core values and principles, and allow us to work proactively on the things that refine self, relationships, and business.
In the 1967 booklet, Tyranny of the Urgent, Charles Hummel speaks of the tension between things that are urgent and things that are important. All of us often sacrifice important things in order to react to urgent things. But Hummel warned that “your greatest danger is letting the urgent things crowd out the important.”
President Eisenhower said it this way, “I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent things are not important, and the important are never urgent.” Later, using Eisenhower’s principles, Stephen Covey created a decision matrix in his popular book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” This decision matrix consists of four quadrants:
- Quadrant 1: Urgent and Important
- Quadrant 2: Not Urgent and Important
- Quadrant 3: Urgent and Not Important
- Quadrant 4: Not Urgent and Not Important
Every single task problem fits into one of the four quadrants. Assigning different matters vying for your attention into one of these quadrants helps to prioritize them and takes you out of a reactive routine.
In order to bring some humanity to this quadrant, and make it personal, I want to share with you how this plays out in my life. And rather than walking through the quadrants in numerical order, I’d like to walk through them in order of priority, from least important to most important.
Not Urgent/ Not Important: (Quadrant 4)
Tasks and problems that are neither urgent nor important should very simply never be done. For me, these are total time wasters and absolutely rob me of value. These are things like video games, internet porn, scrolling through social media, playing poker, watching sports, and fantasy football. (Note, there have been times in my life where I spent an inordinate amount of time on all of these things.) Today, I have tried to eliminate the vast majority of these things from my life. As a side note, the new “screen time” feature on IOS is very telling about the amount of time I spend on my phone doing things that are not urgent and not important.
Urgent/ Not Important: (Quadrant 3)
Urgent but non-important things in my life take many forms: Phone calls from people who just want to chat, text messages, notifications on my phone or computer, ~50% of my emails, responding to business social media messages, mowing my lawn when it gets too high, my daughters fighting/arguing loud enough that I have to take care of it, meetings where I don’t have a direct influence on the outcome, general interruptions, someone knocking on my door or ringing the doorbell, taking my kids to gymnastics practice, packaging & sending mail, scheduling meetings, grocery shopping, and filling my truck with gas. As you can guess, these things can potentially consume entire days.
According to Covey, people spend the vast majority of their time working in this quadrant but believing that they are working on the more important things from Quadrant 1. And while the tasks in this quadrant are often important to others, they aren’t important to you.
For me, I’ve very much tried to delegate these tasks, while protecting myself from the interruptions. Notifications on my phone and computer are turned off, across the board. My phone is on “do-not-disturb” 99% of the time and set so that only my immediate family, BLOC VPs, and my Chief Administrator can get through. I work from home, my wife is a stay-at-home mom, and we homeschool our daughters. This can create a chaotic situation if we aren’t intentional about our schedule and our tasks. First, I wake up very early every morning and start working by 5 am to minimize distractions and interruptions. Additionally, my family knows when I’m in my office, I’m not to be bothered – not because they aren’t important, but because I want to get my work complete as quickly as possible so that I can focus on the most important things in life (Quadrant 2). I pay them the same respect as they do their schoolwork and housework. Our goal is that every day by lunchtime, the urgent things are behind us for the day.
Furthermore, I have an incredible staff at BLOC who are able to handle many of the tasks in this quadrant, right down to my Chief Administrator who schedules all meetings for me, answers many of my emails, and handles 99% of the administrative tasks at the company. I hire someone else to mow my lawn. And I even have a personal assistant who comes just once a week to wash my truck, fill it with gas, and do our grocery shopping.
For most of us who are bent towards working too much, Quadrant 4 (the non-urgent/non-important) isn’t the problem; Quadrant 3 is the enemy.
Urgent and Important: (Quadrant 1)
Urgent and Important tasks for me include the day-to-day operations for BLOC and Barbell Logic. The first thing I do every single morning is break down videos for the ~20 clients I still keep at BLOC. This is both urgent and important because we have a strict 24-hour response rule at BLOC. When I’m finished online coaching, then I move on to emails (I have 4 business email accounts, so I work through them all). For emails that require a short (less than 3 min) response, I go ahead and respond immediately. For ones that require a longer response or if they require an actionable item from me before I respond, I mark the email as “important” and come back to it after I’ve worked through the others. These emails are often ones from my leadership team and are part of the day-to-day management responsibilities of a business with nearly 80 staff members and 1000 clients.
Once my online coaching and emails are complete, I finish up any other work that is both urgent and important. This could be things like recording podcasts or videos, writing articles, staff meetings (done via Zoom), business meetings (in person), sales calls, or accounting/ bookkeeping.
I work diligently and effectively on the urgent and important things, often utilizing the Pomodoro Technique to get things done as quickly as possible so that I can focus on the most important things…
Not Urgent, but (Most) Important: (Quadrant 2)
I believe that the vast majority of things that truly bring me value and refine me as a person, a husband, a father, and a business owner (and as an effect, refine the business) lie in Quadrant 2.
For me, these are things like:
- Spending quality time with my family and people I love and specifically focusing on building relationships with them
- Reading/ Truly Relaxing/ Napping/ Listening to Podcasts/ Watching Documentaries
- Strategizing and planning for the business (working on my business, not in my business)
- Going to counseling
These are the things that make the biggest impact in my life, but if I’m not intentional every single day about making time for them, then the urgent will crowd these things out. I know that when I’m old and gray (ok, I’m already gray and kind of old), I’ll never look back and wish I spent more time doing the urgent things – even the things that are urgent and important. My desire is to free up as much time possible to do these things—the most important things in life, to bring me and others value and joy.
As you think about your day, where do you spend the majority of your time? What actual, practical steps can you take immediately to remove Quadrant 4 from your life? How can you drastically reduce the time spent in Quadrant 3 by delegating to others, and insulating yourself from distractions? How can you be more efficient in Quadrant 1 to get the things done that are both urgent and important, in order to free up the greatest amount of time to live in Quadrant 2?
I still have days where I crawl in bed at night and realize I battled the urgent all day. But those days are becoming few and far between because I’ve taken proactive steps to eliminate or reduce the time I spend in Quadrants 1, 3, and 4, and I understand the value of living in Quadrant 2 as much as possible. I hope and pray you get as much value out of this philosophy as I have.