☆ The Tyranny Of The Urgent

Crocus TrianglesI’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!

☞ Futures

☞ Community Effects

  • LibreOffice 3.3.2 is being released just one day after the closing of the first funding round launched by The Document Foundation to collect donations towards the 50,000 euro capital needed to establish a Stiftung in Germany. In five weeks, the community has donated twice as much, i.e. around 100,000 euro.

    Unleash true community and the result is a flood of contribution of all kinds. I now run only LibreOffice and have deleted the “safety copies” of OO.o from my machines.

  • Good primer on what’s wrong with centralised services on the web and what we can do to prevent them becoming control points that leech away our freedoms.
  • When a large business stalls, it falls back onto dirty tricks and ethically questionable but legal moves to generate cash and scare competitiors. Microsoft has been in this state for quite some time. Watch for them to explain how they still love open source but… (looking at you, Gianugo)
  • Richard Stallman does not believe that copying the headers alone from a GPLed file creates a derivative work.

☆ Oslo Position

Stave Church DragonI’ll be speaking at GoOpen in Oslo on Tuesday (on the Grand Panel at 20:00) and Wednesday (the closing keynote). I’d love to meet with you if you’ll be in Oslo this week – find me at the event.

I was asked for a two-paragraph “position statement” so the panel moderator knew where I was coming from, so I sent this:

Open source is what the older concept of software freedom turns into when it happens on the world-wide web. The ever-increasing reach of the web has led to ever-increasing use of open source. That expansion has made it increasingly a business requirement passed to suppliers that software used in enterprises is open source in some way.  That in turn has made software vendors increasingly try their best to cheat, pretending that all it takes is an open source license to make something open source and that software freedom is irrelevant.

It doesn’t. Software freedom takes more than just a license. It takes a living community that’s open-by-rule, where every participant is free to pursue his or her own motivations for participating, doing so at his or her own cost. As the games companies play get more sophisticated, so the remedies communities create need to be more effective. Usually the best remedy is based on transparency, common sense and community empowerment. All the time open source is important, the game will be elevated, so I believe today we need benchmarks, best practices and inter-community co-operation if we’re to see software freedom build the open society I know it can.

That will be the background for my comments on the panel and for my keynote – what do you think? Comments below please – help me write my talk 😉

☂ Delicious Broken AGAIN

Thanks to everyone who has been alerting me to the fact that the same post has been showing up here over & over again. The problem is once again that Delicious has gone crazy and the auto-post task over there is stuck in a state where it constantly respawns. I have reported the problem but their tech support is sadly very thinly staffed (I do wonder if the guy who knows how to fix it even works there any more). If some other service offered blog postings I would switch in a heartbeat.

I have switched off Twitter/Facebook/Identi.ca notifications, but the only way to stop delicious posting is to change my WordPress password and I’m reluctant to do that too early as it breaks lots of other things, and anyway it stops the Yahoo people seeing there is really a problem they need to debug – clearly they didn’t last time it happened.

I just hope Stumbleupon or whoever are buying Delicious know what they are taking on.

☞ Fears Real And Imagined

  • Turns out that the electricity crisis triggered by the multiple tragedies in Japan is the result of never having fixed the standards duality in the power supply that arose from having two strong players in their market claiming their standard needed to be respected and instead of picking one, permitting the “two standards” oxymoron to survive.
  • Caterina (co-founder of Flickr) has an insightful take on the psychological game that social networking plays to get us addicted.
  • Here’s one of the reasons I’m not investing in Blu-Ray. In the name of addressing “piracy”, the movie industry is artificially crippling Blu-Ray so that its most loyal customers are repeatedly punished for buying it. Meanwhile, actual criminals who sell illegal copies of the movies are barely inconvenienced becuase they have access to the raw digital content. Digital restriction measures do nothing to protect the industry and simply harm customers.
  • I was kindly sent a copy of this report, and would warmly recommend it. The opening article, which is the subject of Cory’s item here, is full of discoveries (or at very least full of research-based support for the things I already believed).
  • Excellent (serious) visualisation of the amounts of radiation in the environment and their effects from xkcd. Full of discoveries, worth spending the time to study this.

♫ Unthankyou

You’d think given the number of places I track music and the number of things I have given permission to spam me with music information that something would have mentioned that The Unthanks had a new album coming out, or that they would be performing just up the road this Wednesday. But no, nothing did, so I don’t have an actual physical backup disk of the album yet (AKA a CD) nor will I likely make the gig because I’ll be on my way back from GoOpen in Oslo.

All the same, I have listened to it for as long as is possible today (before it was able to start to induce too much depression, as Unthanks albums tend to) and I must say I really like it. Assuming that’s the right word to use for an album that starts strongly in all senses with a funeral dirge for a child and goes down from there, making even Peter Gabriel’s “Up” seem cheery. Thanks to the wonder that is mflow, I’ve been able to stream the whole album without adverts and bathe in the glorious darkness which is Last.

If you want to do the same and are in the UK (the only place mflow works), first sign up from this link (which will give both you and me £1 of credit to spend) and then go listen on this link. Since I like to have a backup of my MP3s, I tend to buy the CD if it’s not too much more than the digital album; hopefully it’s winging its way from Amazon already (if you’re in the US you’ll need to pre-order as it’s not released yet).

Ever more self-assured and accomplished, this is an album of raw beauty, delivering uniquely modern yet still traditional folk music with both lyrical and melodic clarity. It also has a variety of pace and tonal texture that means it makes good, varied listening – albeit without any clog-dance percussion this time. On early listening I especially like the two longer tracks – Last and Close The Coalhouse Door.

The title track Last explores the loneliness of singleness, and is written by Rachel’s partner Adrian McNally. Coalhouse Door reflects on the human cost of mining and considers coal as clots of dried blood. Holy Moly sums it up well:

This is a truly miserable record; a three-hankie affair. Listening to ‘Last’ for the first time in the less than ideal environment of Glasgow airport we snivelled at the title track with its desolate future view and plea for human interaction, bit our lip throughout the traditional lament ‘My Laddie Sits Ower Late Up’ and lost it completely during their extraordinary reading of Alex Glasgow‘s ‘Close The Coalhouse Door’ (written about the death toll of North East miners, and the Aberfan disaster). Rarely is the North depicted so sadly and yet so beautifully.

If you too are a fan of “three-hankie folk” then this is a must-try. Just make sure you have cleared away everything sharp and grabbed the tissues first.

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