Just like the word "busy," the word "urgent" is being abused, misused and overused in the corporate world. The relentless drive and determination to be first to market and best in class are fierce and relentless. Add the element of social media -- where customers can instantly broadcast even the slightest delay or misstep -- and it becomes understandable the circumstances that have spawned a perpetual culture of urgency inside many office environments.
The question to ask ourselves is: Is this culture of urgent sustainable? Intuitively, we know it's not. Stress, burnout, disengagement, and low quality of work are major consequences of urgent overload. It creates a team environment in which people are only reacting to what's urgent, and rarely -- if ever -- responding to what's important.
Dwight D. Eisenhower said, "What is urgent is seldom important, and what is important is seldom urgent." This thinking spawned The Eisenhower Decision Matrix, which productivity pioneer Steven Covey popularized in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. It's become a common and useful productivity tool to help define and differentiate urgent versus important.
Indeed, the matrix is a strong foundation to help us intellectualize the concept of urgent. But how do we make it real and actionable in our day-to-day corporate lives? How do we actually manage the volume of "urgent" requests most of us face at work?
First, let's stop abusing the word urgent. Truly, it's not urgent unless it involves birth, bleeding or obstruction of breath. (Unless you work in health care, it's rare that something is truly urgent at work.) Rather, the real conversation is about priorities: getting clear on and responding to what's highest-priority for our roles and businesses. This is where people struggle, because "urgent" often comes with layers of non-verbals that can confuse its rank against other priorities.
To help decode what is really urgent or highest-priority, consider what's driving the urgency: Is it the person making the request? A deadline? Is it you, the person doing the task or service? Or is a particular energy or emotion driving the urgency?
When we think about urgent as highest-priority it becomes easier to decode. Is something "high-priority" simply because it's coming from your manager or an executive? Is a date attached that may or may not be a real deadline? Are YOU making it urgent because you don't have enough information to know whether it's highest-priority for your team or the business?
Or does the request come across as urgent because of the energy of the person requesting? Does their excitement make it feel like it needs immediate attention, whether it does or not? Is the person angry or upset, and you want to please them? Are they stressed out, and you're feeling their stress? Are YOU excited because the request maps to your values so you want all of your attention on it now?
As important to consider is: When does urgent end? When is something no longer highest-priority? The answer depends on the driver, but it's important to acknowledge when a cycle of urgent concludes, to prevent lingering confusion over conflicting priorities that may cause unnecessary stress.
Let's save "urgent" for what is truly life-affecting, and shift the conversation to what it's really about: competing priorities. Let's allow space for decoding high-priority tasks and requests, and support an environment of more responding, less reacting.
(Co-author Kim Lowe, Managing Editor Simple Intentions.)