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Time Management

The Tyranny of the Urgent

Your schedule for the week looks reasonable. The top priority item—that client proposal which will take approximately a half day to complete, you will start first thing in the morning. Knowing that Mondays are always hectic, what with the staff meeting to kick things off, followed by a sea of voice mail messages and vendor appointments, followed by the weekly update, you plan to start it on Tuesday morning.

Tuesday rolls around and what happens? There are a couple of lingering things from Monday that will just take a few minutes. So you do them. Then you check your voice mail, a couple of calls are urgent, and so you return those. Just as your computer beeps to alert you to an incoming e-mail message, a coworker sticks his head around the cubicle to ask a quick question. Following him to his workstation, you get grabbed by your boss requesting an update. Oh yes, there is also that document to fax. Suddenly, you realize it's 9:45 and you have a 10:00 meeting. No time to start that proposal now. Well, there is always tomorrow.

Sound familiar? The little things have just sandbagged you. The "tyranny of the urgent" refers to the seemingly endless stream of little things that take up so much of your time. They are generally low-priority. Urgent tasks are often "C" priorities that arrive attached to a memo with the word "rush" or "urgent" on it. It may be a person with a question, a survey to complete, a phone or e-mail message, or a delivery. Individually, the urgent things tend to be quick, fairly obvious and can be taken care of with little time or effort. However, no matter how many you dispatch, more arrive, unendingly. Before you know it, the day is gone.

"C" tasks can be seductive, but at what a cost. They crowd out the high-pay-off items. "B" priority tasks are critical to successful performance. Since a "B" task can wait if necessary, it is easy to get distracted and off track. Just because it can wait does not mean that it should wait. In order to free up breathing space so you can concentrate on high payoff activities, here are ways to get those inevitable "C" priority tasks done more quickly.

Killing Low Payoff Tasks

  • Delegate them if possible.

  • Write them down on a list. Reduce the clutter in your head and free energy from having to remember and dedicate it to thinking.

  • Set deadlines on each of the tasks. Force them into a shorter time frame.

  • Systematize them. Use checklists to help do routine things more easily and quickly.

  • Lower your standards. What is the minimum acceptable level of quality that can get by for this task?

  • Group them together. Return calls or do paperwork at a set time. Take care of little things by forcing them into bits and pieces of time; while you are waiting for a meeting, for your next appointment, or on hold.

  • Use shortcuts wherever possible. A handwritten response on correspondence received or a phone call instead of a letter.

  • Honor your priorities as you do those of others. Do not let these little things destroy your schedule, your plans and your ability to perform to capacity.

  • Never get up from your desk for a single item. Always bunch your questions, errands or copy trips.

  • Use the DIM-5 Principle. Consultant Ron Blohowiak suggests that you think about the long-term impact of the work you are falling behind on. DIM stands for "Does it matter in five" (years, months, weeks, days or hours). You choose the time frame that best applies to your situation. In the overall scheme of things, the "C's" rarely matter more than the "B's." After all, no one received an achievement award for the number of meetings attended, forms completed or calls returned.


Odette Pollar is a nationally known speaker, author, and consultant. President of the management consulting firm, Smart Ways to Work based in Oakland, CA, her most recent book is Surviving Information Overload. Email to share your comments, questions and suggestions: odette@SmartWaysToWork.com. Visit us at: www.smartwaystowork.com call: 1-800-599-8463.

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