Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Tyranny of the Urgent

"Your greatest danger is letting the urgent things crowd out the important."                                                                           ~Charles Hummel


I recently read Charles Hummel’s classic essay, “Tyranny of the Urgent.”  He begins by asking the question, “Have you ever wished for a 30 hour day?”  Hummel characterizes our modern life as one in which we have become so busy with day to day things that we have essentially become ‘slaves’ to the tyranny of the urgent.  It isn’t so much that we don’t have the time, but we have misplaced important priorities, lending our time and energy to things that really, in the scheme of things, are temporal.

We are so often focused on the mundane and trivial.  Urgent things have a way of dominating our time.  A million different things compete for our attention. Most of our modern conveniences are supposed to create more time for us. Ironically, however, it can be easily argued that today we have a incomparable 'poverty of attention.' We can have volumes of information at our fingertips in an instant, something unimaginable a few short years ago. Google, the 24 hour news cycle, instant accessibility via cell phones, Email, text messaging, social media, etc., have all helped make our world quicker, more connected and smaller. But are we really better?


Hummel wrote his essay over 40 years ago and believed that the home telephone was an intrusive device that invaded our peace and sanity. Fast-forward to 2011 and the intrusions into our homes are unimaginable by 1960’s standards. Many of us would rather text & tweet than have a real conversation. (And may I add, @Mrs. Cleaver, that is a great dress you’re wearing in your Facebook profile).

Several weeks ago we had a power outage at our home. Admittedly, a temporary inconvenience. Having no TV, no radio, and no WiFi created an unusual calm in my home. Forced solitude. Refreshing, but kind of weird. I have become so acclimated to background noise and dependent on electronic accessories that when these things are temporarily gone, it creates a strange void. Solitude. It is unusual to have quiet time in our house. On those rare occasions where I find myself enjoying a few moments of silence (usually early mornings before anyone else is up), I try to focus on finding that elusive inner peace that seems to evaporate so quickly as the day unravels and becomes increasingly chaotic. But most days, there isn't much time for quiet. So when it happens, the silence is almost deafening. And surprisingly welcomed.  

19 Jan 2005 --- Row of Old Books --- Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

I can remember growing up as a poor kid, having very few “things” to pass away the time. There was a lot's of stretches of time that I had to fill. I sought out those things that were free. I spent countless hours reading books, many borrowed from my local public library (one of my fondest memories, actually). I played softball, catch, and basketball with neighbor kids until we were absolutely exhausted. Homework and church activities also filled a great portion of my youth.

Video games, 24 hour cartoon and movie channels were non-existent in my home (we had an old antenna on our TV set, and on clear nights could get three Indy stations). I can remember the distinct monotone sound of the T.V. stations and test pattern after they signed off the air for the night (usually not too long after the close of Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show).


Now I have literally hundreds of cable stations at my disposal, at any time of the day. And then there’s Netflix! Never again to be bored, I guess. Sadly, most of what passes for entertainment today is lost on me.

I really am not a Luddite. I love my gadgets. It’s hard to imagine life without a smart phone, the internet & social media. But when forced into situations where I have no gadgets or ‘things’ to keep me distracted, and solitude completely envelopes me, it is a strange but not entirely un-welcomed experience. 

Recently, while reading a business travel magazine I came across a piece on a private Caribbean Island beach resort which caters to executives. There are no televisions, in-room phones, cell phone coverage, or WiFi. If an emergency develops, family or employers can call the front desk at the hotel and the staff will notify the guest. The purpose of the resort is to be so secluded that the overworked executive can recharge and truly be away from it all. Perhaps not surprisingly, such places are in high demand. 

There is a place in Florida my wife & I absolutely love. It’s right on the beach, and although not nearly as exclusive as the aforementioned resort, it’s still pretty darn peaceful. Not much on frills, but you can’t beat the morning sunrise. I can almost hear the waves crashing on the surf! It is one of the few places I have been where I can just sit and do absolutely nothing for hours. A guilty pleasure. There is something about sitting in silence, watching the sun rise over the Atlantic Ocean. It really does seem to restore my soul, sense of balance, and perspective.  

We Americans (and especially Hoosiers) pride ourselves on our Protestant work ethic (nothing inherently wrong with that, in my humble opinion!). Although I think many would disagree, I also think we place too high a premium on being busy for busyness’ sake. We will scurry and work ourselves into a frenzy, running from one task and place to another. Read any recent employment surveys about work-life balance and you shouldn’t be surprised to learn that well over 70% of employees believe they don’t have enough time.  Listen to any number of work-related conversations, especially those of managers, and you will find a common refrain: lack of time, lack of sleep, too many things to do, too many Emails, voice-mails, and meetings.

All the while, we talk ourselves into doing more and more, competing to out-do peers on how much we are working, and we are seemingly proud of how little is left for our personal life. It’s a non-ending competition in which we believe the top prize goes to the person who can do the most without a break. In an economy in which employers have no room for any slacking, there is legitimate concern and fear in not keeping up with the frenetic pace. 

Nonetheless, I question the logic of being so busy that we fail to evaluate whether we are really being good stewards of our lives and time. Hard work? Yes. Being dedicated, honest, and loyal employees? No question. Giving it our best? Absolutely. Sacrificing our precious and limited time to the extent that we misplace our priorities? Maybe all too common. It reminds me of a scripture that says "for what shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his own soul."  

I confess to being a recovering workaholic. I think I’ve done better in recent years, but I still have an obsessive streak in my personality that pursues perfection. But sometimes, it really is Ok to just go home and agree to tackle it the next day. I know all too well what it is like to be a stranger to my spouse and children. I have entirely missed birthdays, Christmases, anniversaries, and a number of other important events because I was “too busy” with work responsibilities. I missed out on a lot of my kid’s lives as they were growing up. After facing a serious health crisis a handful of years ago, I made a commitment to myself that I would keep the proper perspective, and as Hummel says, not “letting the urgent things crowd out the important things.” 

Not as easy as it sounds. But sometimes it can be just as simple as a power outage that forces us to disengage from our worldly distractions and remind ourselves to enjoy the solitude, and reflect on what is truly important.  


  1. Due to the fast pace of our technical advancement people are being programmed to react in a robotic fashion. I have watched a person have a landline phone in one ear, cell phone in the other ear and trying to answer an e-mail on a laptop at the same time. Multitasking has become the way to survive in a corporation but I always have the same question ... at what cost. Far too often we neglect the truly important aspects of our personal lives to be accommodating for others. Experiencing silence can be frightening in some situations yet truly golden in others. We have devices to help people hear and those people can turn off the distractions of the world at will. Does this make hearing loss a disability or a gift? A parents concern of wanting their child to have more advantages has led to the loss of quality family time. The day following our recent snow I noticed a woman out apparently walking her dog. What caught my attention was the dog had on a leash following the owner but the dog had the handle part in its mouth. Not breaking any laws there the dog was under control and on a leash.

  2. My parents were married in 1948. Not sure whether my mom actually heard my dad's relative by marriage make the comment, or it was reported to her, but the story is told of the lady wondering how labor-saving all these new-fangled devices were. After all, we were going to have to take care of them, keep them maintained, etc.
    She was talking about things like washing machines and vacuum cleaners.

  3. I love my gadgets and my technology, but it is so true that they need disciplined and given strong boundaries... which so many are still trying to figure out. I do think though, they do offer us a connectivity as well that can't be discounted... again, as long as it is disciplined.

    As for the workaholic society... I also agree... since there are not clear societal lines for this technology, it has opened the door and expectation to the 24hr employee.


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About Me

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I work for a Community-Based, Not-for-Profit agency. I have worked in the disability field for over twenty-five years. I am the father of two boys, and have been married to my teenage sweet-heart for 23 years. I live and work in the same town where I was born & raised.
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