The Tyranny of the Urgent

Oct 21, 2015 | Insights, Skills

Yesterday I had a rare “free” day – one uninterrupted by meetings and appointments where I could spend the day at my desk really getting things done. When the day started, I thought about all the things I’d like to accomplish. The hours stretched out ahead of me, and I was excited about the possibilities. I had blog posts I wanted to write, a 2016 business plan to draft and some changes I hoped to make to my website. All were important, strategic projects to help grow my business and prepare for next year.

The day passed, and I was productive. But not with all of those important projects. Instead, I got sucked in by my to-do list, which was full of urgent tasks that I felt had to be done immediately. I filed expenses and sorted out the pile of paperwork that had gathered on my desk. I sent out some invoices. I responded to client queries and delivered some promised actions. I felt great about my progress, yet at the end of the day, I knew I had missed an opportunity.

In my work, I often coach leaders who are struggling with exactly this challenge: They have great strategic opportunities – ones which could be transformational for their business and for themselves personally – and they struggle, like me, to give them the right priority. They head into the office in the morning full of good intentions, only to find people at their door, emails in their inbox and messages on their mobile phones with real, urgent needs that stop them from making progress on longer term goals.

So what are we to do about this ongoing struggle? How do we get the right balance between the urgent and the important?

1) Block time in your diary

Some projects require a level of focus that is hard to obtain during a standard work day. If you need some time for thinking and reflection, or to move an important project forward, consider blocking dedicated time in your diary. Then keep this time sacred, just as you would time allotted to any other important meeting.

I do this occasionally for large projects that don’t seem to have a clear deadline. I also do this for things like exercise, which otherwise can be too easily pushed aside. I dress in my running clothes when I get up in the morning and block an hour in my diary to run as soon as I drop my daughter off at school. Because I schedule it, I make sure it happens. And by going out first thing in the morning, I get the productivity boost that morning exercise gives you while avoiding getting dragged into a crisis that might otherwise prevent me from giving it the time it needs.

2) Find a new work environment

Even with time set aside, urgent issues can come up that distract. In this case, consider an avoidance tactic – don’t go into the office at all. Work from a new location that is free from your standard distractions.

What this location looks like may vary. For some, who are in a standard office setting, this may be working from home. Those who need quiet may try a local library. Others take a more creative approach: I recently spoke to a team that went on a “coffee crawl” to focus on a strategic project, spending one hour in a local coffee shop before moving along to the next one. They left with a caffeine buzz and a finished project.

3) Don’t go solo

Often times, as leaders, we feel we need to work on the big strategic questions on our own, before we share them broadly. Many organizational cultures reward expert leaders who come with the answers. The bigger the potential transformation, the more leaders tend to want to hold the challenge close until a vision or direction is clear.

In today’s organization, this is short sighted for a number of reasons. Not only are many companies moving toward more collaborative cultures which discourage command and control leadership, but this also can create blockages in progress on large, important change.

Instead of trying to tackle strategic challenges single-handedly, bring in some diverse perspectives. Delegate to a team of high potential talent to explore the question or create a task force to establish the work as a priority. Or, if it really is something you must do alone, find an accountability partner – a coach, a colleague or even a manager you can share your goal with who can check in with you on your progress.

4) Re-assess the project’s importance

Despite being distracted by my to-do list yesterday, I am a big believer in task lists and have an established system for tracking my work. One of the keys to this system is that everything goes on the list and each day I mark those items that have greatest priority. That’s where I put my attention. As I move toward Friday, I shift items to future weeks as my schedule becomes clearer and I am more able to assess what’s possible in the current timeframe.

One of the sub-rules for this system is that if I move something forward three times, I reflect again on its importance. Why is it not getting priority? Is it really essential? If not, and no one is depending on it, it gets cut. If it is important, it automatically becomes a priority in the third week – with time set aside to ensure its successful completion.

5) Break it down

Sometimes in assessing an item’s importance, it becomes clear that the problem isn’t that it isn’t an essential or strategic task or project but in fact it’s not getting done because the next step isn’t obvious. As humans we take the path of least resistance. If we have five things to do that require very little thought and are seemingly urgent, we do those first. Therefore, we are more likely to make progress on those larger, more strategic and important projects if we break them down into clear and measurable tasks and we know what we need to do next.

The next time you find that you are leaving your office at the end of the day frustrated that your important work is not getting done, think about these approaches to managing your work to get a better urgent/important balance. Do you have other methods that work for you? If so please share them in the comments.