Cost of Not Changing: The Tyranny of the Urgent

November 23, 2020

In this installment of our series, “Cost of Not Changing”, we look at how getting stuck in a rut will prohibit you from making strides in your business and personal life. We covered the direct effects of not changing for the earlier installments (costs, pain of stress on current staff, and dissatisfied customers).

The tyranny of the urgent is likely something you know of subconsciously and deal with every day, but you might not know its full effects on your business.

It’s a catch-22: if you have chronic staffing challenges or are constantly putting out fires, you won’t have the bandwidth necessary to make strategic changes to get yourself out of the rut that was giving you those challenges in the first place.Fortunately, there’s a way out.

The problem: focusing on what’s urgent instead of what’s important

The urgent things will rule your life if you let them.

So often when we ask people how they’re doing, the answer is something like “good, just so busy!” or “you know, there’s just so much going on right now.” If you find yourself answering in the same way, you’re not alone.

It’s easy to get swept up into the pattern of always fighting fires and putting off addressing the important issues because it seems like they can wait—or that you have no choice to do it later.

Unfortunately, those urgent things rarely propel you forward. In fact, they can even do the opposite, and push you in the opposite direction of where you want to go. We all deal with this, even if it’s not in a business sense. We can agree that some of the most important things, like investing in our family or growing in our faith, are the easiest to put off until “tomorrow”.

It’s like the parable of the sower in the Bible: if the seed falls on good soil but is surrounded by weeds, or the cares of this world, it will eventually get choked out.

A frustratingly simple concept: the tyranny of the urgent.

Charles Hummell wrote a short book in the 1960’s that has turned into a business classic called “The Tyranny of the Urgent”. In it, he describes the constant tension between things that are urgent and things that are important. The problem, he wrote, was that the things that are urgent demand your attention and will often win the battle.

“Your greatest danger is letting the urgent things crowd out the important things.”

When this happens, the things that need your attention the most are getting ignored for things that grab your attention in the moment. It could be as innocuous as unimportant tasks or always checking your email, or as serious as neglecting time with family because you have to keep putting out fires at work.

What this looks like in the business world

There will always be seasons where it’s necessary to focus entirely on what’s in front of you. Whether it’s increased demand, a short-term staffing shortage, or something else entirely, when work is busy it can force us to neglect some of the important things just to get through the season. We talked about this from a staff perspective in a previous article—sometimes a short season of overtime, busyness, and pulling together as a team can be invigorating.

The problem comes when that season becomes a lifestyle.

Here are some examples of this we’ve seen in our clients:

  • Instead of finding a long-term fix for their staffing shortages, clients find themselves always playing catch-up and trying to find workers (and oftentimes, lowering their standards so they can get anyone at all)
  • Companies with manufacturing equipment having to constantly fix things over and over again, instead of taking the time to look at their capital expenditure plan and get new equipment as necessary.
  • Business leaders who aren’t in the HR space spending a lot of their time patching holes because of high turnover, poor morale, or disciplinary issues. It’s urgent, but it’s not the most important thing they could be spending their time on.

The solution: recognize, reflect, delegate when necessary

The tyranny of the urgent can affect us all: recognize where it’s occurring in your life.

If you are so focused on the minutiae of the day that you neglect the big issues like the shortage of skilled workers, strategic planning for your business, or even managing the equipment in your facilities—you may be victim to the tyranny of the urgent.

The good thing is that it’s not a permanent problem. The first step to overcoming the control the urgent things have on your life is recognizing that it’s happening in the first place. It can be especially difficult in our culture where being busy is considered a sign of success, but it’s important to remember that just being busy doesn’t mean anything if it’s not things that are contributing to your long term goals.

Does your life feel like a hamster wheel—always running, never gaining traction?

Reflect on your personal and business life: do a “time budget”.

Stephen Covey wrote the popular book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. In it, he has a section that is connected to the tyranny of the urgent. He asserts that you can rank everything in your life on a matrix: important/not important and urgent/not urgent (see graphic).


Get out of the cycle and focus on what will move you forward.

Avoid the not important categories whenever you can, as those tasks can either be delegated or don’t provide value.According to Stephen Covey, great business leaders spend their time on things that are important but not urgent. They have the time to think about upcoming challenges and plan for them instead of reacting in the moment.Essentially, every task is some combination of those traits. If you feel ruled by the tyranny of the urgent in your life and business, consider ranking some of your day’s tasks to see where they fall on that spectrum—like a time budget. We all have the same 24 hours in a day, but we can maximize the time we do have by deciding ahead of time how to spend it.

If you need a better framework to plan your days and stay on track with long term planning, we recommend something like the Full Focus planner. You choose three things to focus on each day and three “big ideas” each week that lead you towards annual or quarterly goals. It can be helpful to have a system to keep you out of the rut of the tyranny of the urgent—even just writing a goal down makes you 50% more likely to get it done.

If the urgent is ruling your life, consider where you can delegate those tasks. The cost of staying in that vicious cycle is too high—whether it’s on your business or your personal life. We’ve all been there for a season, when things are so busy at work that we neglect family or doing things that bring us joy and fulfillment. Life is too short.

Delegate staffing challenges so you can focus on what’s important.

The reality for many companies in the trade space is that the skilled labor shortage demands all of your attention, so you’re not capable of doing long-term planning and the things that need to be done. Skillwork can help if you’re feeling that constant pressure of not having the people you need.

Too busy? Fill out the short form here and we will reach out to you. Let us manage your urgent so you can focus on the important things for your business.

We highly recommend the two books in this article. You can find them here:

Tyranny of the Urgent by Charles Hummell

Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey

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