Have you ever made it to the end of a busy day but feeling like you never actually got near completing anything you had set out to do? Was that day filled with urgent issues, requests, and interruptions; your best-laid plans for productivity shot? Has that become the norm for you?
Welcome to the club.
Most people in today’s busy workplace are driven by urgency. I think we all see that. But the thing that scares and frustrates me more is that most organisations are also driven by urgency. And everyone accepts this as normal. It may be the current reality, but it does not have to be normal or accepted by leadership or their teams.
In a culture that accepts urgency as the legitimate driver of work priorities, people are expected to react. And react they do.
To their boss, to customers, to colleagues and to themselves. But this desire for the quick turnaround comes at a cost. This reactive approach to work reduces the quality of our outputs, causes unnecessary stress and reduces motivation on a grand scale. You could say it’s the antithesis of productivity. Our busyness makes us feel productive but distracts us from other more proactive yet important priorities that we should be focusing on. The priorities that may have more impact.
It is my experience that industries are not reactive by nature, nor are organisations. It is people and their work styles that cause urgency and reactivity every day of the working week (and weekends if you are especially reactive).
But I believe that if we understand the nature of urgency, we can start to reduce the unnecessary urgency in our workday. What I call ‘Dialing down the urgency’.
Where’s the fire?
So, the first thing to understand is that not all urgency is the same. Some urgency is real and needs to be dealt with. But a lot of urgency is actually false, it may seem urgent but it is not. Or somebody may be screaming ‘urgent’ as they know that stuff gets done when they do that. Either way, we need to be able to differentiate and act appropriately in the name of actual, real productivity. Constantly dropping current priorities to deal with the most recent urgent issue just dilutes our focus and increases our stress.
Some urgency is reasonable, and could not have been prevented. But many urgent things are unreasonable. They are only urgent because someone else left the work until the last minute, and has now passed that urgency on to you. Or worse, you have left it until the last minute yourself, and are the one to blame. Many people call reacting to urgent issues firefighting. Sometimes you are the arsonist and end up having to put out your own fires!
The urgency matrix
Consider these dynamics are represented in a matrix diagram. Each quadrant suggests a course of action depending on the type of urgency. If the urgency is real and reasonable, we should RESPOND appropriately (respond is subtly different to react by the way). If the urgency is real and unreasonable, we should QUESTION this every time. Why has this become urgent before it comes to me? Could this have been avoided by planning or prioritising differently?
If the urgency is reasonable but false, we should NEGOTIATE. There may be room to move on the deadline. We never know if we never ask. If the urgency is unreasonable and false, we should IGNORE this. It is not a good use of our time, or is probably just noise that will be forgotten quickly.
In a collaborative workplace, we all have a responsibility to dial down the urgency. When we do, work gets easier, more enjoyable and we start to achieve great things in a calm and organised way.
Dermot Crowley is the best-selling author of Smart Work, and director of Adapt Productivity. He is passionate about creating productive cultures in Australian businesses. Download a sample chapter from Smart Work, free here.