Most great stories have a villain.
The villain is often the one who is plotting to do harm to the hero in the story.
Villains such as Thanos in The Avengers, Bane from The Dark Knight Rises, Darth Vadar from Star Wars, the Joker, Sauron or Nicholas Andre from Dumb and Dumber. The list goes on with the villain playing a specific role in the stories of our heroes.
There is also a villain we fight against as manager. This villain, much like the villains listed above, is intent on derailing us and minimizing the impact we can have as organizational leaders.
The villain in the story of a manager is the tyranny of the urgent.
The urgent can feel like a tyrant. We can often feel dominated by the urgent activity going on around us. Our calendars are full of urgent work. Some of the urgent work is unplanned, while other times the urgent work is planned work that is a little out of control.
Think about the work you did this past week? How much of that work would your put in the urgent bucket? My guess is we have all experienced a period where we were dominated by the tyranny of the urgent and felt like all we did was put out fires.
What does our experience look like when we are dominated by the tyranny of the urgent? It can feel that all we spend our time doing is putting out fires and working on the urgent. The non-urgent work gets pushed from day to day and the important work never seems to get done. This all stacks on top of each other and fuels the tyranny of the urgent.
In fact, if you don’t do the non-urgent work, it causes the urgent and important work to build. This is why so often we are putting out fires.
Think about this example.
Drinking water is urgent and important. If I go more than a day without drinking water, I will start to experience many negative effects and fairly soon, my health will be at risk. Exercising, on the other hand, is not urgent. I can skip running for three days, or even a week, and not experience negative health ramifications. But if I never go running (or regularly exercising in some other way), I will experience significant long term health issues. Exercising is important, but not urgent. As you can see, the fact that it is not urgent does not mean that it is not important, and it does not mean that I can put it off indefinitely.
So, what do we do to fight against the tyranny of the urgent?
Here is a tool I use to help me get visibility into the work on my plate and helps me define an action plan to ensure I am not dominated day in and day out by the tyranny of the urgent.
I take time each week to think through the work on my to-do list and put it in each of the buckets based on whether it is important or urgent. There will always be urgent work. This is our reality, but the point is not to eliminate urgent work. The intent is to ensure the urgent work is not dominating us and preventing us from getting the important work done. Remember, the important work will become urgent if we do not have a plan to get it done.
The dynamic between the urgent and important is a tension to balance vs. a problem to solve.
Here is a breakdown of the buckets in the matrix above:
Important & Urgent — This is work you need to manage. It is most likely work that needs to get done now and is work that is high impact, high value. This could include work with deadlines, escalated work, emergency work, etc. The focus here is to manage this work as much as possible so it does not consume you.
Important & Not Urgent — This is the work that needs your focus. It might not be urgent today, but will become urgent if you do not focus attention and action on getting this work done. It’s important to have visibility into this work so you can drive action to get this work done before it becomes urgent.
Not Important & Urgent — This is the work that needs you to exercise caution. Could this work be delegated? Is this work you need to do? Are there more efficient way to get this work done?
Not Important & Not Urgent — This is work you need to avoid. If it is not important and not urgent then it might not need to done at all.
Take time to write down the work on your plate. Writing it down allows you to get it out of your head so you can intentionally and logically define the actions you need to take to get the right work done.