Today had the makings of a stressful, difficult day. Upon waking up, I discovered, by virtue of 24-hour communications devices designed to make our lives easier, that 3 new meetings were added to my schedule today. Additionally, I opened yet another “priority” email, informing me I must “urgently” address a series of questions I had already addressed several times because YAI (yet another ID10T) needed the information and, of course, it was easier for me to reply yet again, than for him to dig through his old email to re-read what he already knew. Finally, my phone chirped at me yet again, to inform me, that me meeting for tomorrow (with 2 people) required a one hour telephone conversation with one of the two to prepare for the meeting. I realize that these types of episodes are unique to me and probably don’t happen to the rest of you, but humor me, because, I think we both can find some level of common ground in both the problem and the solution.
The result of all of this churn today was to threaten both my sanity and what really needed to be done and that got me to thinking once again about the tyranny of the urgent. All too often we substitute the urgent for the important, mistakenly believing them to be one and the same, or, worse, thinking “it’s just a small thing, I can do it and get back to what’s important.” For the latter, I merely offer the Despair.com quote “no single raindrop believes it is responsible for the flood.” That type of thinking resulted in such concepts as “the straw that broke the camel’s back” and “death by a thousand cuts.” Simply put, a small unimportant thing, though urgent, is still unimportant and doesn’t need done right now. If it did, it’d be important.
The former idea, though, is the more difficult to correct. We have become trained to answer the phone, respond to the text, like the post, get our food right now, etc. over the course of our lives. It’s not a bad thing to have fast food, fast responses, or fast information. It is, however, a bad thing to interpret fast actions/urgent actions as important. How many times this week have you gotten a text and felt like you had to respond immediately? How many of those times were you driving, working, handling explosives, performing brain surgery, etc.? It’s hard not to pick the phone up when it beeps or buzzes. We want to know what is going on so that we can stay plugged in and respond. It’s like a drug and it’s easy to deceive ourselves into thinking we are somehow safer or more uniquely suited to reading and responding than “all of those morons on the road.” The problem is, we aren’t. If you were given the choice of ignoring a text while driving and knowing you would live or looking at the text and definitely being in an accident that may claim your life, none of us would look at the text. But daily people just like us get hurt or killed doing just that.
More importantly, though, is the nuance of important versus urgent in our priorities. Texting and driving is an easy one, but an email telling us about some new issue we haven’t dealt with before or telling us we may need to change our schedule makes us tend to freak out and focus on that problem until we resolve it at the expense of ignoring the important things that were higher priority. I have experienced it first-hand. A few weeks ago I had an unexpected free day. I looked at the priority items on my list the night before and decided I would focus my time on a project I had been working on for several months that was supposed to wrap up soon. I patted myself on the back, made sure my requisite resources were in place, politely, yet pointedly informed my co-workers that I was going to be “head down” focused on a priority project, and readied myself for a day of achievement never before seen by the likes of man. I had two goals for the day…exercise and write…nothing more.
I woke up late. That led to my first unfortunate response. I had lost an hour from my optimal schedule, so I immediately started to replan in my head rather than stick to the plan I had developed. The next mistake was critically bad. Before heading out to exercise, I opened my email on my work phone, where I discovered an “urgent” email asking me for some schedule information that I had close at hand. I mistakenly thought that I could just run to the laptop, send the information, incur a 5-minute delay (see “no raindrop” above) and be back on my game. While responding to that email, my instant messaging app blew up at me because all of the people I told I would be head down, realized I was online and “available”. Most of the 6 or 7 requests were quick, so I started hammering out responses and clarifying what needed to occur. By the time I finished that, my phone was ringing from the email respondent who needed more clarification on the schedule information and “just had a few questions, that we can quickly clear up over a call.” By the time the call finished, it was somehow mid-afternoon.
From there I panicked as my day slipped away. I ignored my devices and went to exercise hoping that would change the day. In mid workout, my personal phone buzzed at me, reminding me that I needed to change some travel plans and that I needed to schedule my car maintenance. I wrapped up my exercise early with the thought that I had gotten a decent workout in and tomorrow would be even better. I ran to the computer to change my travel plans and discovered another 10 emails requesting some small piece of information for a couple of upcoming meetings (again, see “no raindrop” above). I called to change my travel plans while simultaneously attempting to respond to the “small” requests. IMPORTANT POINT: HUMANS CANNOT MULTITASK. We think we can, but we can’t. As I was trying to talk on the phone and send responses, I realized I had sent the wrong info to the wrong request. That led me to stop emailing and finish the phone tasks. Again, I patted myself on the back for clarity of thought in stopping one action to complete another, but I ignored the irresponsibility that got me to that point in the first place. I pounded down through the email and then looked at the clock…and saw that it was now early evening. My heart sank.
I had lost a whole day of writing and a full exercise session to minor email responses and a change in travel that could have waited a day. I was devastated and spent some time kicking myself and trying to figure out how to recover. By that time, 8pm, I resolved to write as long as I could, and, ultimately, got a couple of strong hours of writing in…at which point I was tired enough that I ended up deleting most of what I had written in a way as to make it unrecoverable. I was defeated…and justifiably upset with myself. The problem was I had let my day be dictated by the “urgent” not the important…not by design, but by negligence, and it cost me my day.
I am sure that I am not the only one who has experienced this. Whether it be email, text messages, Pinterest recommendations, Netflix or Amazon binge-watching, or anything else, we all tend to get distracted by what is in front of us, misinterpreting it as important, because it is in front of us. So, what have I done to fix it? Interesting you should ask. I would love to tell you I found a handful of magic beans and fixed it, but that didn’t happen. Rather, I have marginally improved in two areas…recognizing when it is happening and reorienting myself. I have taken the somewhat stern stance that my priorities are my priorities. While I may have 38 number one priorities (actually true according to my work), only one can be 1a, followed by 1b, etc. and 1al probably won’t get done unless the other 37 are completed. This has been remarkably freeing. It has allowed me to learn a new word, which has the power to stop the urgent and refocus on the important. That word is “no”. I’ll probably write on it more later, but it is becoming a word I hope to use more.
So, what is this post really supposed to tell me, you ask? First, although it is incredibly hard, you have to develop the mental toughness to ask the question, “is it more important than my current priority?” Second, if it is, you have to ask “is it really urgent?” If it is, then you do it. If not, you have to put it on the list and then let it go. Does this mean it may not get answered in time to be relevant? Yes, but if it is not important, who cares? Will some urgent things become more important with time? Absolutely, but until they are important, don’t overprioritize them.
Finally, if you are driving and checking your phone, stop it. If you are stressing out because your friend urgently needs your opinion on whether or not getting a tattoo on their forehead of today’s date, take a deep breath, recognize that your friend is an idiot, pull over to the side of the road and text them. More than anything else, though, when emails, texts, calls and posts start to overwhelm your day, exercise tactical patience, look at your priority list, and choose to work that instead.
By the way, I blew off the unimportant calls this morning, took the important ones this afternoon, had a wonderful morning with my definitively better half and best friend, and figure I’ll deal with the fallout when and if it comes…