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The tyranny of the urgent over the important (Or, Habit number 3).

Tyranny of the urgent over the important

Tyranny of the urgent over the important

The tyranny of the urgent over the important – It was Charles E Hummel who first used this phrase in referring to our constantly pressured lives, with endless unfinished tasks and little fulfillment.

And he said this in 1967!

Seems like in some ways our oft gerbil-wheel-running lifestyle is nothing new. I have spoken here before about Burnout, which has been around since Victorian times, and which they termed neurasthenia – nervous exhaustion.

There really is nothing new under the sun.

One of the strengths I find most appealing about Stephen Covey’s book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is that he does not claim to have come up with the habits, nor does he take credit for them. He states simply that he has brought together in one place a series of paradigms, mindsets and ways to live that have been around for many years in different forms.

Habit Number 3 is about putting first things first – learning how to prioritise in our lives that which is important rather than being consumed by what is urgent.

Let me expand (you know I was going to).

Urgent tasks are very visible, press round us, insisting on action, often with a short-term, shallow focus.

There will never be an end to them.

Notice too that they are often based on the priorities and expectations of others, and can be associated with achieving someone else’s goals.

Important tasks, in contrast, are associated with long term results and development, establishing and maintaining good roots, achieving your own goals. This is about considering our values, life purpose and mission, and prioritising what and who matter to us most. Important tasks are about our legacy – what we want to leave behind, the difference we want to make.

This is the outworking of Habit Number 2.

When much of our time is spent preoccupied with Urgent tasks at the expense of Important tasks, our lives can feel out of control, flitting from one crisis to another, constantly reacting to things with little breathing space. The focus becomes short-term fire fighting, or responding to the needs of others.

Choosing Important tasks however takes initiative, forward planning, thinking ahead.

Regularly implementing important tasks takes discipline and requires us to be proactive.

This is the outworking of Habit Number 1.

This can seem hard to the point of impossible at times, not least when we consider how many of the Urgent tasks are not going to disappear. And there will never be an end to them.

But it is exactly in taking that initiative, making a decision to prioritise what is Important, and keeping focused on our life goals and purpose, that we notice our effectiveness and fulfillment increase. We have a greater sense of purpose when we invest in something of value, and often this pro-active approach to developing and nurturing what and who matter to us most prevents the kind of crises that end up in the Urgent category.

As examples, consider the impact of regularly investing in your personal development, key relationships, health, and whatever team or community you are a part of. Now imagine the cost of losing sight of your goals, taking those closest to you for granted, neglecting your health, not investing in the people you work with. When viewed in such black and white terms, the contrast and impact are clear.

Of course, everything we do is on a spectrum, and life is not always clear cut. We can go through very busy seasons when there are a high proportion of activities that are both urgent and important. But that is where investing in ourselves and what/who sustains us is so vital to resource us and equip us for life’s challenges.

The central element to Habit number 3 for me is in this simple quote from Dr Covey himself:

the key is not to prioritise what’s on your schedule but to schedule your priorities.”

To make time for the things that are most important to you each week.

Time management is largely a misnomer – the challenge is not to manage our time but to proactively make choices about how we use our time based on what is most important to us. Trying to prioritise what is important to you each week without a strong basis in your own proactivity and personal responsibility for your life, and without clear values, will not get you very far.

Saying this is the easy bit. Living it out is far more difficult. The first step, as always, is awareness.

How do you spend your time? How much time each week do you spend on that which is most important to you?

As ever, food for thought….

Inspired? Encouraged? Get in touch!

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