4 Steps to Overthrowing the Tyranny of the Urgent


How much of what you urgently respond to is truly important for you to do?

How much of what you’re neglecting is really the most important to get done?

Your overall success may well hinge on how you answer these two questions.

In 1967 Charles Hummel wrote a powerful essay about these two questions called Tyranny of the Urgent. His ideas are more relevant today than ever.

young businessman running in a city street

As Hummel explains, all of our activities in life can be categorized into one of four areas:

  • Quadrant 1 is important and urgent. These activities demand our immediate attention, and they need to be done by us. They fulfill our responsibilities and/or they move us closer to our goals. (Ex: crisis, customer issues, technology failures, repairs)
  • Quadrant 2 is important but not urgent. These are the activities that can be postponed. They are important for us to address and bring us toward our objectives, but their deadlines are not immediate, and no one is forcing them to be addressed. (Ex: process improvement, networking, planning, skill development)
  • Quadrant 3 is urgent but not important. While they might be important to someone else, these activities are not primarily our responsibility nor do they move us toward our goals. That said, they attract our immediate attention. (Ex: interruptions, texts/emails, meetings)
  • Quadrant 4 is not urgent or important. Sometimes we also do things that don’t require an immediate response, nor do they fulfill our duties and aspirations, but they are comfortable or provide immediate gratification. (Ex: social media, unnecessary projects, unnecessary work breaks)

Neglecting activities in Quadrant 2 means that you expend two to six times the energy, time and money when they eventually move to Quadrant 1!

This bears itself out in everyday life: overdue credit card payments, depleted relationships crashing, poor habits resulting in health issues, lack of process improvement yielding poor quality or inefficiencies, procrastinating on prospecting that produces a weak sales funnel, etc. The proactive activities in each scenario (and so many others) are substantially less costly than the price paid when it becomes a crisis.

This dynamic has a compounding effect as each activity that moves from Quadrant 2 to Quadrant 1 makes it more difficult to do other Quadrant 2 activities. You become tyrannized by the urgent.

So how do you unlock the chains to lower stress and live healthier, more effective and more connected to others? Here are 4 critical steps to take:

  1. Know What You’re Doing. It starts with awareness. My colleague Jen recently took the initiative to log all of her activities for several days in 30-minute increments. As a successful and experienced professional, it inspired me to see someone so hungry to know the truth—what’s really happening. She discovered one activity more than any other that is consuming her work time. Now she has the information to decide: Should she be doing it? Should someone else be doing it? Should nobody be doing it?
  2. Know Where You’re Going. To determine whether or not you should be doing something (and when it should be done), you have to know what’s important. The way to know what’s important is to clearly understand the desired outcomes. To make great decisions about time and resource allocation, you have to know where you want to land.
  3. Establish Boundaries. Most of the urgent time we spend on things that truly aren’t important results from a failure to establish boundaries. Sometimes boundaries are structural, like relocating, closing email or putting the phone in the drawer. Other times, boundaries are personal like saying “no,” walking away or choosing not to participate.
  4. Be Intentional about What’s Truly Important. Doing what matters most when it’s not urgent requires pure intentionality. Behaviors have to change, and thought patterns have to evolve. Calendar blocks need to be preserved (to a point), plans need to be made and kept, and task lists need to be consolidated and prioritized. Attitudes need to be adjusted to commit to maintaining freedom from tyranny.

See it: Get clear on today’s reality and your desired future. Do it: Limit Quadrant 3 and pour into Quadrant 2.

Imagine being free from the oppression of the urgent. How would that impact your work and your life?

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3 Comments

  • Heather MacAngus
    June 2, 2016 at 10:32 am

    Matt this is so timely for our team. We just did the exercise with our sales team and have moved their attitudes to spending more time in quadrant 2. I am sending them this as a further reminder with some great ideas. Keep doing what you do on this blog its inspiring.

    • Matt Norman
      June 8, 2016 at 11:25 am

      Heather, I’m really glad that this was a timely message. I hope that your sales team can continue to move toward the non-urgent despite temptations to be short-term focused! Thank you for the comment.

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