Dealing with the Tyranny of the Urgent
Updated: Feb 11, 2019
Resisting the urge to respond to the urgent rather than doing what is important.
One item that life has in its bag of tricks is the Tyranny (oppression) of the Urgent. This is where one is moved to respond to the urgent rather than doing what is important.
It is not a coincidence that not long after I sit down at my desk to accomplish an important task that I get the urge to get something to drink or to do something as simple as trimming my fingernails. What I have experienced is the tyranny of the urgent. The Tyranny of the Urgent is when the urgent competes with what is important in your life. It is when the urgent oppresses the desire to fulfill what is important in your life.
The difficult thing is that some of the urgencies of life seem to be extremely important at that time. This is what makes resisting them so hard. We can overcome the “tyranny of the urgent” by sifting our activities and reasoning by what’s really important.
A story in the Bible that teaches the principal of the Tyranny of the Urgent is found in Luke 10:
(Luke 10:38 NIV) As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him.
(Luke 10:39 NIV) She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet listening to what he said.
(Luke 10:40 NIV) But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, "Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!"
(Luke 10:41 NIV) "Martha, Martha," the Lord answered, "you are worried and upset about many things,
(Luke 10:42 NIV) but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her."
Martha was preoccupied with doing what was urgent. To Martha, preparing the food and setting the table was important. But when you compare what she was doing to what her sister Mary was doing, Martha’s preparations weren’t important at all, they were just urgent.
In verse 41-42, Jesus says, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed.” Some have interpreted Jesus’ words to mean that all Martha had to do was make a few sandwiches—just a simple meal would have sufficed.
Martha was distracted with all the preparations (vs. 40). For Martha, the urgent was distracting her from doing what was vitally important and better. The better thing was to sit at the feet of Jesus (like Mary) and listen to His Words.
Jesus says at the end of verse 42, “Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
Do we have any Martha’s among us? People come in oppressed from the work week; distracted with financial problems; distracted with relationship concerns; distracted by what they might be missing on TV. All these “urgent” things are bumping those better things from their schedules.
You see, the Tyranny of the Urgent focuses on the urgent and distracts us from the things that are important. As they say, “the squeaky wheel gets the oil” and we have a lot of squeaky wheels in our lives that demand our attention but is responding to those annoying squeaks the most important things for one to do?
Let me tell you a secret, there will always be a few squeaky wheels in your life demanding you oil them so that they will be quiet. There will always be something demanding your time, your treasures and your talents. It doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor there will always be those urgent things that try to encroach upon the important things of life.
Diversionary Attack - An attack wherein a force attacks, or threatens to attack, a target other than the main target for the purpose of drawing enemy defenses away from the main effort.
God doesn’t want us to live like those who are distracted by the urgent and disregarding the important. He wants us to live in such a way that He gets the glory and this means heeding what is important.
This truth is illustrated by a story told by the late Bible teacher Donald Grey Barnhouse (1895-1960).
A young son of a missionary couple in Zaire was playing in the yard. Suddenly the voice of the boy's father rang out from the porch, "Philip, obey me instantly! Drop to your stomach!"
Immediately the child did as his father commanded. "Now crawl toward me as fast as you can!" The boy obeyed. "Stand up and run to me!" Philip responded without questioning his dad and ran to his father's arms.
As the youngster turned to look at the tree by which he had been playing, he saw a large deadly snake hanging from one of the branches!
At the first command of his father, Philip could have hesitated and asked, "Why do you want me to do that?" Or he could have casually replied, "In a minute." But his unquestioning, instant obedience saved his life!
Little Philip, in Dr. Barnhouse’s story, could have allowed a toy to distract him from heeding his father’s command. In a child’s mind reaching for a toy is an urgent matter.
Sometimes adults have to make similar decisions---are we going to distracted by the urgings of our desires or are we going to stay focused on what is really important.
The Tyranny of the Urgent will always have an excuse for you.
There will always be a better time for you to do what needs to be done today. Today is always too soon when it comes to the Tyranny of the Urgent.
You will always be too busy; you will always have something more needful to attend to.
Your job will always have a reason for you to work overtime. You will always have a reason to work overtime.
The Tyranny of the Urgent will keep you from spending quality time with your family and friends.
How does one gain the victory over the Tyranny of the Urgent?
The late "Charles E. Hummel", former president of Barrington College wrote a classic article called, The Tyranny of the Urgent. This writing came out of a discussion with a cotton mill manager who said to him, “Your greatest danger is letting the urgent things crowd out the important.” In his article Mr. Hummel makes several references to the life of Jesus who said in His high priestly prayer of John chapter 17, “I have finished the work which Thou gave me to do.” (Verse 4).
How do we experience victory over the tyranny of the urgent?
1.) Wait for instructions
Many professional sports teams employ a coach that sits in the press box. I am told that "Curly" Lambeau, the founder, a player, and the first coach of the Green Bay Packers football team was one of the first coaches to view the game from the vantage of the press box in order to get a better perspective of the field.
God, who sits high and looks low, has an infinitely better perspective of our lives. We should consult Him at the beginning of the day and throughout the day in order to gain His perspective. Read your Bible.
Have you ever been driving down the street and suddenly out of nowhere comes a pot hole? By the time you see it, it is too late to avoid it? But God can see the “potholes” ahead of us and wants to warn us about them.
How do we fend off the Tyranny of the Urgent? Wait for instructions.
2.) Take time out for evaluation
Someone said that, “One minute spent in planning saves three or four minutes in execution.”
A strategy of the person in the business of sales that has revolutionized their profits is to set aside Friday afternoon to plan carefully the major activities for the coming week. If an executive is too busy to stop and plan, he or she may find themselves replaced by another who takes time to plan.
If you are too busy to stop, take spiritual inventory and receive assignments from God, you become a slave to the tyranny of the urgent. Many are oppressed by the urgent because they do not take the time to plan and they don’t take spiritual inventory of their lives.
Psalm 37:5-8 says,“Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him and he will do this: He will make your righteousness shine like the dawn, the justice of your cause like the noonday sun. Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him; do not fret when men succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes. Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret--it leads only to evil.”
How does one take spiritual inventory? Here are six suggestions:
1.) Start your day with God. This means having a quiet time of reading the Scriptures and meditation and prayer at the start of the day to refocus your relationship with God.
2.) Mentally walk yourself through your day and recommit yourself to God’s will as you think of the hours that follow.
3.) List in priority order the tasks to be done, taking into account the commitments you have already made. A competent general always draws up his battle plan before he engages the enemy.
4.) Resist the temptation to accept an appointment when the invitation first comes over the telephone. No matter how clear your calendar may look at the moment, ask for a day or two to make a decision. This will allow you to pray for guidance before committing yourself.
Surprisingly the appointment often appears less important after the person pleading with you has hung up the phone or left the room. If you can withstand the urgency of the initial moment, you will be in a better position to weigh the cost and discern whether what they are asking you to do is God’s will.
5.) Set aside one hour a week for spiritual inventory. Write an evaluation of the past, record anything God may be teaching you, and plan objectives for the future.
6.) Try to reserve a large part of one day each month (or quarter) for a similar inventory looking further down the road. Most of us will wonder where we’re going to get the time to do this. The irony of all this is that the busier you get, the more you’re going to need this time of inventory.
The difficult thing when it comes to getting things done is that some of the urgencies of life seem to be extremely important at that time. This is what makes resisting them so hard. We can overcome the “tyranny of the urgent” by sifting our activities and reasoning by what’s really important. We do this by waiting for instructions and taking the time to evaluate our plans.