15 July 2015

The Tyranny of the Urgent

In his booklet entitled “Tyranny of the Urgent,” Charles Hummel describes a phenomenon that I think all who have served in the military can identify with: getting so caught up in urgent tasks that we never get around to important things.   Having worked in and for the Army for 40 years, I am confident when I say that this happens in the military.  Many times the urgency is dictated from above, but not always.  Sometimes I decide for myself that something is urgent – an incoming phone call, for example – when I really could let the call go to voicemail and drive on with something else that might be truly important.
Hummel compares time and money as resources. While we all may have different amounts of money, time is not a resource in the same sense. For example, PVT Snuffy and GEN Dempsey make vastly different amounts of money, but both have just 24 hours each day; no more and no less.
Prioritizing and deciding how we will spend our time become very important activities.  And they are activities that many people completely ignore.  Time is a finite resource, so we should budget our time very carefully.
Hummel’s suggestion for budgeting time is first to set priorities, and then determine how to budget time.  He recommends breaking your day into 30-minute segments and writing down what you do during each 30-minute block.  Then, after a few days, take a look at how you’ve spent your time and decide if you could/should spend it more wisely, based on your priorities. Hummel’s recommendations are oh-so-very close to Stephen Covey’s in “Putting First Things First,” Habit #3 of the “7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” which is a best-selling book about being all you can be.
Covey describes putting first things first as a matter of personal management.  He quotes E.M. Gray’s “The Common Denominator of Success,” which says “the successful person has the habit of doing things failures don’t like to do.  They [successful people] don’t like doing them either necessarily.   But their disliking is subordinated to the strength of their purpose.”  Now, isn’t that a quote that most of us who have served in the military can relate to?  I say it is.  Sometimes in the military you just have to suck it up and drive on, even when it does suck.  That’s how people succeed.  I remember well the motivational signs in the company area of C, 1/504, 82d Airborne.  One that I will never forget is this:  “Winners never quit and quitters never win.”  I know it’s cliché, but still.
Covey’s Habit #3 is essentially managing tasks and time based on priorities.  He uses the included quadrant diagram to help identify which activities we should put first.
The quadrants are pretty much self-explanatory.  Quadrant I is where a lot of folks spend a lot of time – putting out fires.  These are the crises and pressing problems of life that demand our attention:  Hummel’s tyranny of the urgent.  Quadrant II contains important, but not urgent activities; things like planning, mentoring, networking, working out, and relationship building.  Quadrant III activities are urgent, but not important; interruptions are an example.  And Quadrant iV is where unimportant and not urgent activities reside.  These are time wasters, busy work, and pleasant activities (think video games).
According to this model, the secret to success in time and life management is to be mindful about spending as much time as possible in Quadrant II.  Although we can’t always avoid the urgent and important (Quadrant I) activities, we can carve out time in our lives and schedules for Quadrant II activities, which is what Covey recommends in 7 Habits.
Covey also recommends that we use a time management tool, such as a planner, to ensure we include time in our busy schedules for Quadrant II activities.  He recommends that as we plan our weeks (and he does recommend planning a week at a time for the short-term), that we take care to keep the following points in mind:
-     Be coherent:  Include a “harmony between vision and mission, roles and goals, priorities and plans, and desires and discipline.”
-     Be balanced:  Identify your roles (leader, parent, friend, mentor, etc.) and ensure you plan time for each role you have.
-     Have a quadrant II focus:  This is where Covey says we should plan weekly and not daily, because he says that planning day-to-day only helps you “organize crises and busywork.”
-     Include a people dimension:  Think in terms of people, not just time; and plan to be effective (in dealing with people), not just efficient (in dealing with time).
-     Be flexible: “Your planning tool should be your servant, never your master.”
An excellent quote from Covey on this entire planning tool discussion is that “the key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.”  That’s the essence of being an effective manager of time and life, and I think implementing something like this approach made me a better Soldier, better Warrant Officer, better leader, better father, better friend … the list goes on and on.
What do you think?  Are you willing to put a little thought and planning into managing your priorities, your time, and your life?  Would you like to free yourself from the tyranny of the urgent?  It’s possible.  It requires you to focus and to be mindful of how you are spending your time.  If nothing else, at least consider those quadrant II activities; plan to include them in your schedule.  They’re important, even if they’re not urgent!

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