Rise Up Against the Tyranny of the Urgent

Cough, hack, snort. If you are anywhere near my office these days the sounds can be pretty gruesome. When my body collapsed into illness and exhaustion last week I had several days in bed to contemplate what had gone wrong.

How did I get so run down? The usual suspects were behind it: Over work and long hours in service of the tyranny of the urgent. And I ask you, as a business coach shouldn’t I know better?

The tyranny of the urgent – you likely have experienced it yourself: An email in-box that fills up as soon as it is emptied. Crushing deadlines. Projects that get delayed due to the late contributions from similarly overwhelmed colleagues.

What’s the result? Late nights at work. Lunches at the desk. Falling behind on personal commitments. Rising stress levels and subsequent illness.

Stephen Covey is a veteran crusader for breaking free of urgency and putting important things first. He developed a simple diagram that explains the four quadrants our activities fall into:

Many of us in the legal profession spend most of our time working in Quadrant 1, the urgent and important quadrant. Urgency works in a vicious cycle. When you spend time only on Quadrant 1 activities then everything else backs up until your entire life is on fire.

The casualties in this battle against deadlines are most often the parts of your life that are most significant to you: Connecting with the important people in your life, and your own personal and professional goals and aspirations. All are pushed aside for that long awaited dream day when you are no longer so busy.

Business coach Marshall Goldsmith describes the dream this way:

I am incredibly busy right now. In fact, I feel as busy as I have ever felt in my life. Sometimes my life feels a little out of control. But I am dealing with some very unique and special challenges right now. I think the worst of this will be over in a few months. Then I am going to take a couple of weeks to get organized, spend some time with my family, start my ‘healthy life’ program, and work on personal development.

The reality is that this period of rest is probably not going to come. Even in the heart of this recession you will likely continue to move at a breakneck pace and tomorrow is probably going to be even busier than today!

The good news is you have a choice. The first step to exercising choice is in truly knowing what is most essential to you. If you have trouble with this Covey suggests reviewing your goals according to the roles you take on in your life. Roles represent your responsibilities, relationships and areas of contribution.

Covey recommends identifying no more than seven roles. That’s because it is hard to remember more than seven. One role we all share is personal and professional development. Covey calls this sharpening the saw. You can only cut down so many trees before you have to take a break and sharpen the saw. The other roles are up to you.

Here’s my personal list of seven roles:

    One: Sharpen the saw

    Two: Wife

    Three: Mother and grandmother

    Four: Friend and family member

    Five: Coach and mentor

    Six: Business person

    Seven: Board member

Once you have identified your top seven roles the next step is to consider these questions:

  • What are the most important goals associated with these areas of my life?
  • Do one or two roles in my life consume the majority of my time and energy to the detriment of the time and attention I’d like to give others?
  • How many of my “most important things” are in roles that receive most of my time and attention?
  • What is the most important thing I could do in each role this week to have the greatest positive impact?
  • What difference would it make to the quality of my life to consider these roles on a weekly basis, and ensure that I give focus and attention to what is most important?

Make yourself a list of the really important things that you want to do. In my case it is connecting with an old friend in Boston who I haven’t spoken with in months. It is developing a workbook for my coaching clients. I want to take a course. I have this article to write for Slaw. And most importantly it is to spend time with my family this weekend and leave the work behind.

What is most important for you?

Once you have your goals set it is time to make some decisions. What are the few things from your list that you can take action on in the week ahead? Put them first. Schedule them in your calendar. Make them happen. For big projects like writing an article, break it down the very next actionable step, such as choosing the topic.

The result of putting first things first is a sense of inner harmony. Stress levels drop. You will have the sense that important things are being taken care of each week. When you start putting your own needs first you will find you have more energy and enthusiasm too.

Conceptually it is very simple, it practice it can be incredibly difficult to pull off!

Martha Beck, coach and Oprah Magazine columnist, writes about the challenge of setting your own priorities:

If you, like me, tend to include other people’s priorities in your decision making, the Covey Quadrant exercise requires you to break that pattern. You can’t differentiate between “this is due today” and “this is important” when you are (to quote the 15th century mystic Kabir) tangled up in others. You must untangle yourself, still all the other voices, and go to the deepest place within to know what’s important and urgent in your unique and singular life.

What you just might discover is some of those things you once thought were important like answering all your emails, having a spotless house and weeding the garden are just not as important as playing with your children, working on your short story, and calling an old friend.

This is great news for those of us who have always suspected that having fun with family and friends was way more important then cleaning house or weeding the garden!

The skill of uncovering your own priorities and weaving them into the fabric of your life is one that can take many years to master. I am most interested in learning how you cope with the challenge of balancing personal priorities with important and urgent commitments. What suggestions or stories do you have to share? Please take a moment to comment on this article and let me know about your own experiences.

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