Finding balance between urgent vs. important

  • Published
  • By Col. Doug Stouffer
  • 512th Airlift Wing commander

What would you do with a 48-hour day? I would fill it up with double the stuff I already have in a 24-hour day! Many of us would do the same. We all want more time in the day. We are never caught up. But, would we fill our time with urgent events, projects and meetings, or important ones? 

In the 1960s, Charles Hummel wrote “Tyranny of the Urgent.” It’s the concept that we often allow urgent things to take priority over important things. While the pamphlet has a religious context, the overall principal applies to all of us as Airmen. If society in the 60s struggled with this balance, then how much more does it apply in 2022 with cell phones, internet, email and social media? The pace of life has increased dramatically and we are bombarded with urgent matters all the time, but are they important?

This is related to a phrase coined by Cyril Parkinson in the 1950s, “work expands to fill the time allotted for its completion.” In our current fast-paced life, I think the inverse is also true. I’m sure you can relate to the dreaded feeling of being six hours prior to an assignment deadline, one that should have taken days to complete, and you are staring at a blank computer screen with nothing started. How long does the project take now? Six hours. While it’s true nothing makes a person more productive than waiting until the last minute, we know procrastination is not the best way. We have allowed a bunch of time-critical tasks with questionable importance to take the place of completing something with a much higher priority. That begs the question, how well do we handle this tension?

In the mid 1990s, Stephen Covey wrote the book “First Things First” and attempted to graphically represent Hummel’s principals. He drew a quad chart with Urgent and Important in the top left, Not Urgent but Important in the top right, Urgent but Not Important in the bottom left, and Not Urgent and Not Important in the bottom right. Through research, he also assigned an approximate amount of time we spend in these four quadrants as we go through life. He determined most of us are pretty good with prioritizing the Urgent-Important items, and we are also good at skipping the Not Urgent-Not Important items. However, he determined we only spend 15% of our time on the Not Urgent but Important items, which he calls quality, while we spend almost 60% of our time on items that are Urgent but Not Important, which he calls deception.

Those are staggering numbers. That means on average we spend four times more energy on unimportant items that have a short suspense than we spend on important matters without a deadline. We get a warning light in our car, but it is still running; so, we press on to the next scheduled event. We know in the back of our mind this should really move up in our personal priority list, but we allow the urgency of other items with less importance to overcome our better judgment. Or, we know we have an important task due by the end of the day, but our inbox is filled with unread emails that seem to be compelling us to open them because they are urgent. An entire room could be filled with self-help books written on time management, so I will not solve this quandary in a short commentary, but I will provide one concept that must be in place if we ever hope to keep this in balance. That is the principal of margin.

I didn’t create the principal of margin, but it’s essentially the gap between our limits and ourselves. Many of us operate with no gap or even a negative gap. We must purposefully carve out some margin time to prioritize what is important and have a brief respite from the frenzied pace of life. 

When a hamster is running on a wheel but going nowhere, it’s obvious to us looking in from the outside that its efforts are futile. If we don’t step back, look at our lives from a holistic perspective and prioritize what is important over what is urgent, we run the risk of expending a lot of effort and going nowhere. It takes purposeful discipline to create some margin with the goal of overcoming the Tyranny of the Urgent.