Joe’s Journal: Overthrowing the Tyranny of the Urgent

“To be effective every executive needs to be able to dispose of time in fairly large chunks. This is particularly true with respect to time spent working with people, which is, of course, a central task in the work of the executive. The manager who thinks that she can discuss the plans, direction and performance of one of her subordinates in 15 minutes is just deceiving herself.”

—Peter F. Drucker

Evidence from brain research is now pretty clear: Multitasking in general is counterproductive. It is especially damaging to making important decisions without careful thought.

The “tyranny of the urgent” can lead us to attend to seemingly pressing matters rather than truly important ones. I try to remind myself of this by keeping visible, under my telephone, a little 1967 publication called Tyranny of the Urgent by Charles E. Hummel. Hummel revised and expanded the book in 1994.

I first came in contact with the book when I met Hummel in the early 1970s. More than 40 years ago, he knew all about the dangers of choosing the urgent over the important. It is actually pretty old wisdom. I suggest you get this little book and put it under your computer or mobile device since that is where many of us now receive most of our messages.

Ironically, Peter Drucker published The Effective Executive the same year, 1967, containing the advice in the passage above. He applied it to executive decisions in particular and to “managing oneself for effectiveness” in general. Yet, as executives and knowledge workers know, we are almost always forced to do some multitasking.

So, how do we avoid the most damaging aspects of multitasking? We do so by managing our time to give adequate attention to the truly important matters, just as Drucker advised:

First, know where your time goes by recording it. Next, identify and eliminate “time wasters,” those activities that do not produce results. Then try to delegate to others those necessary activities that someone else can do equally well or better. And identify the routine, recurring “crises” that can be solved once and for all by a change in policy or procedure.

—Joe Maciariello