In the 1960s, Charles Hummel published a little booklet called Tyranny of the Urgent, and it quickly became a business classic. In it, Hummel argues that there is a regular tension between things that are urgent and things that are important—and far too often, the urgent wins.
In the business world, this means that demands of your boss, your client, or petty office relationships can often take priority over things that actually matter, like thoroughly completing a task before starting the next one, or building unity in a work team that would instill camaraderie and longevity.
The urgent, though less important, is prioritized, and therefore the important is put on the back burner.
This is no different in home life. We focus on the urgent things in front of us more often than we intend, and by bedtime, the things we really care about—the important—were barely given a glance.
Here’s what this looks like.
“Urgent” looks different for different families, in different seasons, and even in different hours of the day. Some examples might be:
- replying to email
- changing an exploded diaper
- fixing and kissing an “owie”
- paying bills by their due date
- running kids to ballet practice or karate lessons
- watching your neighbor’s children while she desperately runs to the hospital
- cleaning up a spill
- gathering up the clutter before your spouse returns home from work
- going to a scheduled extended family gathering
- getting dinner on the table at a decent time
None of these things are evil. Yet they need to be done either quickly, or at a designated time.
Photo by Andreanna Moyer
This list might look like:
- spending time with your spouse
- teaching your children to read
- fostering a spirit of creativity at home
- becoming debt-free
- only having that which you need
- building relationships with your neighbors
- spending quality time outdoors
- taking care of your health
- reusing an item instead of buying new
Where the urgent and important intersect
There are times when the urgent and important are the same thing, and it’s a good thing to focus on this task at hand when it rears its head.
Your bills are due, and you’ve got a long-term plan to become debt-free. My guess is that paying bills on time is a small part of that plan, so focusing on them today? Good.
Your neighbor, a single mother with two kids, could use more friends in her life, and to be frank, so could you. You’d like to get to know her better, and to let her know you’re there for her when she needs it. So when her toddler splits open his knee and needs stitches asap? Yes, it’s probably a good idea to drop your afternoon plans and help watch her oldest child.
Where the urgent and the important collide
It gets ugly when the urgent and the important head-butt in a crash collision, and the twisted cacophony makes it awfully difficult to distinguish between the two. The urgent looks like the important, and vice versa.
Photo by Kevin Dooley
You’d like to slow down and have more quality time reading and playing with your children. But afterschool commitments mean that instead of an hour at the park getting quality outdoor time and exercise with your kids, you have to play taxi and get everyone to their lessons.
In your family, it’s high priority to have dinner together as a family, around the table. But at five o’clock, dinner’s boiling on the stove, your preschooler is whining that she’s bored, and then your mom calls.
You answer the phone because you don’t want your mom to get upset, and instead of letting your daughter solve her own problem, you toss in a DVD to keep her at bay. All the while, dinner has charred.
You want a tighter rein on your finances, and you’d like to teach your kids the basics of money management. But when it’s costume time for the school play, you’re too busy playing taxi, fighting the clutter at home, serving as “team mom” out of guilt, or working at the office 50 hours a week so you can maintain your lifestyle.
So, you don’t have time to make a costume. Sure it would be cheaper, more fun, and teach more life lessons to craft a chicken costume out of things around the house. But because of time, it’s “easier” to plop down cash and order one online.
Making life work for you
None of these scenarios are evil, mind you. There are times when it’s best to pay for a service over doing it yourself, or to spend quality time with your daughter and order pizza for dinner that night. I’m all over that.
It becomes an issue when this is the modus operandi in your home, and you honestly don’t want it to. When the urgent always trumps the important.
Photo by D. Sharon Pruitt
For me, I keep this in check with I open my email inbox. I almost always have over a hundred unopened emails waiting for me. But they’re not as high a priority as other things in my life, and I don’t open my emails unless I have the time to answer them right then. So they wait until I can get to them.
Turns out, life goes on when emails just sit there.
Step back for a few minutes today, and look at the next few days ahead. Are there obvious urgencies? Are they truly urgent? Then make them a priority.
But are there urgencies disguised as something important? Does that urgent obligation rob you of time or money you’d rather spend on something truly important to you? See if you can let that urgency fall back in line, and let the important take priority.
It’s stressful, it’s incongruent, and it’s no fun to let the urgent rule our lives. It’s why we feel like we’re living someone else’s life. It’s why we want to stand up on the table and scream, “Enough!” to all the chaos.
Prioritizing important over urgent helps quell that chaos.
Be intentional with your time. Release the guilt you have about fulfilling all the urgencies in your life. And make it a priority to prioritize at least one truly important thing this week.
top photo source
Included in the Basics for Christian Living with permission. Original by Charles E. Hummel
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.
But would a thirty-hour day really solve the problem? Wouldn't we soon be just as frustrated as we are now with our twenty-four allotment? A mother's work is never finished, and neither is that of any student, teacher, minister, or anyone else we know. Nor will the passage of time help us catch up. Children grow in number and age to require more of our time. Greater experience in profession and church brings more exacting assignments. So we find ourselves working more and enjoying it less.
When we stop to evaluate, we realize that our dilemma goes deeper than shortage of time; it is basically the problem of priorities. Hard work does not hurt us. We all know what it is to go full speed for long hours, totally involved in an important task. The resulting weariness is matched by a sense of achievement and joy. Not hard work, but doubt and misgiving produce anxiety as we review a month or year and become oppressed by the pile of unfinished tasks. We sense uneasily that we may have failed to do the important. The winds of other people's demands have driven us onto a reef of frustration. We confess, quite apart from our sins, "We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done."
Several years ago an experienced cotton mill manager said to me, "Your greatest danger is letting the urgent things crowd out the important." He didn't realize how hard his maxim hit. It often returns to haunt and rebuke me by raising the critical problem of priorities.
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. Extra hours of prayer and Bible study, visit with that non-Christian friend, careful study of an important book: these projects can wait. But the urgent tasks call for instant action--endless demands; pressure every hour and day.
A man's home is no longer his castle; it is no longer a place away from urgent tasks because the telephone breaches the walls with imperious demands. The momentary appeal of these tasks seems irresistible and important, and they devour our energy. But in the light of time's perspective their deceptive prominence fades; with a sense of loss we recall the important tasks pushed aside. We realize we've become slaves to the tyranny of the urgent.
Can You Escape...?
Is there any escape from this pattern of living? The answer lies in the life of our Lord. On the night before He died, Jesus made an astonishing claim. In the great prayer of John 17 He said, "I have finished the work which Thou gavest Me to do" (verse 4).
How could Jesus use the word "finished"? His three year ministry seemed all too short. A prostitute at Simon's banquet had found forgiveness and a new life, but many others still walked the street without forgiveness and a new life. For every ten withered muscles that had flexed into health, a hundred remained impotent. Yet on that last night, with many useful tasks undone and urgent human needs unmet, the Lord had peace; He knew He had finished God's work.
The Gospel records show that Jesus worked hard. After describing a busy day Mark writes, "That evening, at sundown, they brought to Him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered about the door. And he healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons" (Mark 1:32-34).
On another occasion the demand of the ill and maimed caused Him to miss supper and to work so late that His disciples thought He was beside Himself (Mark 3:21). One day after a strenuous teaching session, Jesus and His disciples went out in a boat. Even a storm didn't awaken Him (Mark 4:37-38). What a picture of exhaustion.
Yet His life was never feverish; He had time for people. He could spend hours talking to one person, such as the Samaritan woman at the well. His life showed a wonderful balance, a sense of timing. When His brothers wanted Him to go to Judea, He replied, "My time has not yet come" (John 7:6). Jesus did not ruin His gifts by haste. In the Discipline and Culture of the Spiritual Life, A. E. Whiteham observes: "Here in this Man is adequate purpose...inward rest, that gives an air of leisure to His crowded life: above all there is in this Man a secret and a power of dealing with the waste-products of life, the waste of pain, disappointment, enmity, death--turning to divine uses the abuses of man, transforming arid places of pain to fruitfulness, triumphing at last in death, and making a short life of thirty years or so, abruptly cut off, to be a 'finished' life. We cannot admire the poise and beauty of this human life, and then ignore the things that made it."
Wait For Instructions...
What was the secret of Jesus' work? We find a clue following Mark's account of Jesus' busy day. Mark observes that "...in the morning, a great while before day, He rose and went out to a lonely place, and there He prayed" (Mark 1:35). Here is the secret of Jesus' life and work for God: He prayerfully waited for His Father's instructions and for the strength to follow them. Jesus had no divinely-drawn blueprint; He discerned the Father's will day by day in a life of prayer. By this means He warded off the urgent and accomplished the important.
Lazarus' death illustrates this principle. What could have been more important than the urgent message from Mary and Martha, "Lord, he whom You love is ill" (John 11:3)? John records the Lord's response in these paradoxical words: "Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when He heard that he was ill, He stayed two days longer in the place where He was" (John 11:5,6). What was the urgent need? Obviously to prevent the death of his beloved brother. But the important thing from God's point of view was to raise Lazarus from the dead. So Lazarus was allowed to die. Later Jesus revived him as a sign of His magnificent claim, "I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me, though he die, yet shall he live" (John 11:25).
We may wonder why our Lord's ministry was so short, why it could not have lasted another five or ten years, why so many wretched sufferers were left in their misery. Scripture gives no answer to these questions, and we leave them in the mystery of God's purposes, but we do know that Jesus' prayerful waiting for God's instructions freed Him from the tyranny of the urgent. It gave Him a sense of direction, set a steady pace, and enabled Him to do every task God assigned. And on the last night He could say, "I have finished the work which Thou gavest Me to do."
Dependence Makes You Free...
Freedom from the tyranny of the urgent is found in the example and promise of our Lord. At the end of a vigorous debate with the Pharisees in Jerusalem, Jesus said to those who believed in Him: "If you continue in My Word, you are truly My disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free... Truly, truly, I say to you, every one who commits sin is a slave to sin...So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed (John 8:31-36).
Many of us have experienced Christ's deliverance from the penalty of sin. Are we letting Him free us from the tyranny of the urgent? He points the way: "If you continue in my Word." This is the way to freedom. Through prayerful meditation on God's Word we gain His perspective.
P. T. Forsyth once said, "The worst sin is prayerlessness." We usually think of murder, adultery, or theft as among the worst. But the root of all sin is self-sufficiency--independence from God. When we fail to wait prayerfully for God's guidance and strength we are saying, with our actions if not our lips, that we do not need Him. How much of our service is characterized by "going it alone"?
The opposite of such independence is prayer in which we acknowledge our need of God's instruction and supply. Concerning a dependent relationship with God, Donald Baillie says: "Jesus lived His life in complete dependence upon God, as we all ought to live our lives. But such dependence does not destroy human personality. Man is never so truly and fully personal as when he is living in complete dependence upon God. This is how personality comes into its own. This is humanity at its most personal."
Prayerful waiting on God is indispensable to effective service. Like the time-out in a football game, it enables us to catch our breath and fix new strategy. As we wait for directions the Lord frees us from the tyranny of the urgent. He shows us the truth about Himself, ourselves, and our tasks. He impresses on our minds the assignments He wants us to undertake. The need itself is not the call; the call must come from the God who knows our limitations. "As a father pities his children, so the Lord pities those who fear Him. For He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust" (Psalm 103:13-14). It is not God who loads us until we bend or crack with an ulcer, nervous breakdown, heart attack, or stroke. These come from our inner compulsions coupled with the pressure of circumstances.
The modern businessman recognizes this principle of taking time out for evaluation. When Greenwalt was president of DuPont, he said, "One minute spent in planning saves three or four minutes in execution." Many salesmen have revolutionized their business and multiplied their profits by setting aside Friday afternoon to plan carefully the major activities for the coming week. If an executive is too busy to stop and plan, he may find himself replaced by another man who takes time to plan. If the Christian is too busy to stop, take spiritual inventory, and receive his assignments from God, he becomes a slave to the tyranny of the urgent. He may work day and night to achieve much that seems significant to himself and others, but he will not finish the work God has for him to do.
A quiet time of meditation and prayer at the start of the day refocuses our relationship with God. Recommit yourself to His will as you think of the hours that follow. In these unhurried moments list in order of priority the tasks to be done, taking into account commitments already made. A competent general always draws up his battle plan before he engages the enemy; he does not postpone basic decisions until the firing starts. But he is also prepared to change his plans if an emergency demands it. So try to implement the plans you have made before the day's battle against the clock begins. But be open to any emergency interruption or unexpected person who may call.
You may also find it necessary to resist the temptation to accept an engagement when the invitation first comes over the telephone. No matter how clear the calendar may look at the moment, ask for a day or two to pray for guidance before committing yourself. Surprisingly the engagement often appears less imperative after the pleading voice has become silent. If you can withstand the urgency of the initial moment, you will be in a better position to weigh the cost and discern whether the task is God's will for you.
In addition to your daily quiet time, set aside one hour a week for spiritual inventory. Write an evaluation of the past, record anything God may be teaching you and plan objectives for the future. Also try to reserve most of one day each month for a similar inventory of longer range. Often you will fail. Ironically, the busier you get the more you need this time of inventory, but the less you seem to be able to take it. You become like the fanatic, who, when unsure of his direction, doubles his speed. And frenetic service for God can become an escape from God. But when you prayerfully take inventory and plan your days, it provides fresh perspective on your work.
Continue The Effort...
Over the years the greatest continuing struggle in the Christian life is the effort to make adequate time for daily waiting on God, weekly inventory, and monthly planning. Since this time for receiving marching orders is so important, Satan will do everything he can to squeeze it out. Yet we know from experience that only by this means can we escape the tyranny of the urgent. This is how Jesus succeeded. He did not finish all the urgent tasks in Palestine or all the things He would have liked to do, but He did finish the work which God gave Him to do. The only alternative to frustration is to be sure that we are doing what God wants.
Nothing substitutes for knowing that this day, this hour, in this place we are doing the will of the Father. Then and only then can we think of all the other unfinished tasks with equanimity and leave them with God.
Sometime ago Simba bullets killed a young man, Dr. Paul Carson. In the providence of God his life's work was finished. Most of us will live longer and die more quietly, but when the end comes, what could give us greater joy than being sure that we have finished the work God gave us to do? The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ makes this fulfillment possible. He has promised deliverance from sin and the power to serve God in the tasks of His choice. The way is clear. If we continue in the Word of our Lord, we are truly His disciples. And He will free us from the tyranny of the urgent, free us to do the important, which is the will of God.