I’m nearing the end of the amazingly busy patch that March has turned out to be for me, and I can tell I must be getting older because I am running out of energy. I was reminded today of an essay that was given me when I was at University and whose lesson has stuck with me ever since. Not that I have learned it, as I keep allowing the urgent to block out the important.
Dating from 1967, the essay was actually passed to me as a religious tract called “The Tyranny of the Urgent” by Charles E Hummel – you’ll find it easily if you search, although it’s unlikely to be written to the taste of many of my friends! Despite its extremely clear evangelical message, the core of the essay is a crucial and obvious life lesson that still needs pointing out to me constantly. Hummel starts:
Have you ever wished for a thirty-hour day? Surely this extra time would relieve the tremendous pressure under which we live. Our lives leave a trail of unfinished tasks. Unanswered letters, unvisited friends, unwritten articles, and unread books haunt quiet moments when we stop to evaluate. We desperately need relief.
He goes on to explain the problem:
Several years ago an experienced cotton mill manager said to me, “Your greatest danger is letting the urgent things crowd out the important.” … We live in constant tension between the urgent and the important. The problem is that the important task rarely must be done today or even this week.
Often the urgent is temporarily important too and our attention to it is justified to a large degree. But if we were to step back and lay out all the important things in our lives, we would probably find there were items on the list that would, if they were ever to become urgent, be too late to address. Maybe they are about our own life and health, mental and spiritual. Maybe they relate to our family – especially our children, who carry on growing up even if the things we’re dealing with are very urgent indeed. Maybe they relate to work, where each customer crisis in turn can crowd out our need to invest in product change or marketing needs.
In every case, repeatedly leaving these important things “until later” because there’s something urgent to deal with is eventually fatal, and when we realise those slow-burn important things have become urgent, it’s too late. Our product is trumped by a competitor, and the new customers we should have cultivated go buy it. Our children have grown out of the sort of time we could have invested in them. Our family have built a lifestyle without us. Our health is destroyed and our self-discipline to fix it doesn’t exist.
Just knowing that doesn’t help much, of course. The truth is, we will never get everything important done. There are tasks we fail to complete every day, every week, month and year. The true question is not whether we’ll end our time with important tasks left incomplete; we will, it’s guaranteed. The real question is whether we will do so mindfully, grateful for each success, respectful of each failure and satisfied that our considered priorities were right when seen from a distance.
Hummel has a detailed recipe for preventing the urgent ruling our lives. He prescribes:
- A daily time for quietness, reflection, private study for personal growth and planning of the coming day
- Responding to invitations to new tasks only after a day (or more) has passed, to allow the implications to present themselves, especially during that daily quiet time.
- A weekly stock-take, spending a longer time both in stillness and in consideration of the tasks under way and planned for the next week.
He suggests that these disciplines are actually the most important priorities; if we are not respecting them, instituting them is our most urgent need. To successfully follow that prescription, I need a routine I can carry with me even when I’m travelling and where possible a place in which to conduct it. For me, a paper notebook and a pleasing writing instrument are at the core of the routine, and a comfortable chair in a place with no distractions (especially electronic!) is the place.
I personally need reminding of this regularly, not least right now. I know there are many others around me too who I care about very much who need to be reminded. This wasn’t written for any of you personally; but it was written personally for all of you, and as a lasting reminder for me. Feel free to bring it to my attention each time I forget!