Avoiding the Tyranny of the Urgent

Several months ago, I spoke to a large group of military officers and contractors. My topic was “How to Shave Ten Hours Off Your Work Week.” In my speech, I provided seven tools for achieving greater productivity and restoring work-life balance.

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/studio9, Image #2388668

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/studio9

My fifth suggestion was to “schedule time to actually work.” This is one of those ideas that seems so obvious when you say it out loud. However, it is not widely practiced, I can assure you.

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In fact, after my speech, one of the senior officers came up to me and said, “I never thought to schedule time for myself. I can see now that this one idea could dramatically reduce my workload.”

Yes, indeed. Imagine actually doing your work—at work, rather than dragging it home to do in the evenings.

In order to do this, I simply schedule blocks of time called “Office Work.” These are essentially appointments with myself. I reserve this time for working on routine tasks or important projects.

Before I started doing this several years ago, my time quickly got gobbled up with the “tyranny of the urgent.” (Charles E. Hummel wrote a powerful essay on this topic by the same title in 1967. It had a profound impact on me as a young professional.)

The bottom line is this: if you don’t have a plan for your time, someone else does. The first one to claim it wins!

Knowing this, I use Sunday evenings to review my upcoming calendar as part of my weekly review. In the process, I make sure that I have blocked out sufficient time to actually do the work I have agreed to do in all the other meetings I attend.

During this scheduled block of time, I shut my office door, turn off my email and Twitter feed, turn on some instrumental music, and get to work. If someone asks to book a meeting during that time, I can honestly say, “I’m sorry, but I already have a commitment at that time. How about _____?”

The commitment is, of course, to myself.

Questions: Have you ever tried scheduling time with yourself? How has that worked for you?
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  • http://www.servingstrong.Typepad.com Scott Couchenour

    This has been a habit of mine that has yielded tremendous benefits. I call it “blocktime” and find that when the door is closed and I know I won’t be interrupted, I am able to focus more intently and get done sooner than I think.

    I don’t always remember to do this, however, and your post is a great reminder. Thanks for sharing.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      That's the key: remembering to do it. (I sometimes forget, too.)

  • Paul Steinbrueck

    I’ve been scheduling my work time for many years. I don’t know how anyone can really be productive without doing it. Some people try to operate using a “to do” list but that doesn’t help at all when dealing with the tyranny of the urgent.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt


  • http://www.igniteyouressence.com Justin Popovic

    This is great advice and even though I *know* the importance, I have been doing a poor job at best at scheduling this personal time. As a result, I have been working pretty crazy hours and always taking work home with me at night. I also start my day very early so its mostly work, all the time, sprinkled in with time for my family (which I will admit I have done a good job allocating time for despite my schedule).

    The idea of focused time blocks for work is amazing. I know myself well enough that if I work in a concentrated state for 2-3 hours without interruption, I can often be more productive than a day where I am constantly distracted and bouncing from one task to the next.

    Thanks for the reminder. Time to put it to work

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Make sure you go offline. This is HUGE. If you are constantly being pinged, you will have a difficult time being productive.

      • Gary Schneider

        Offline for me includes silencing the cell phone and putting the telephone on "do not disturb" as well. Thanks for reminding us that this takes discipline and planning.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/BLichtenwalner Ben Lichtenwalner

      Thanks for sharing Justin – I think you made a great point though – although you may not be doing a great job to date, at least you 1: Have your priorities right (still making time for the family) and 2. Are recommitting to this now. I know I've not always been good at it, but like you, made sure I had the right priorities. Thanks for sharing.

  • http://www.hartlineliterary.com Diana

    The tyranny thing I get and while I have known the principle of scheduling time for myself, alas the boundaries have blurred. Thank you for this post- I am recommitting to re ink the lines and attempt to get back some me time. But that empty inbox thing? Not doing so well on that one.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      You might find that they are related. Just a thought. ;-)

  • http://twitter.com/mattdevries @mattdevries

    I face the same challenges with both "work time" and "quiet time" on my calendar … that being, the "urge" to check my email. It is easier to do my quiet time before even turning on the computer, but if I am working a project with known deadline, all too often I get interrupted by all the things that interrupt us! Thanks for the post.

  • http://intensedebate.com/profiles/tarheel810 tarheel810

    I have done this sporadically in the past but cannot say that I have ever fully implemented it the way you describe. I love your suggestion to make it part of my weekly review and get it "on the books" before other things arise. Thanks for the great suggestion!

  • http://www.thekingsfieldpapers.blogspot.com Carmel

    Great reminder and isn't it always the simple solutions that have the greatest impact!

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/success2you John Richardson

    This is one of the most powerful things a person can do. I personally use a 48 minute time block, and then take a 12 minute break. I repeat as necessary. During this time I turn off e-mail, close my door, and focus on one single task. This procedure works great for long term projects like writing a book, weight training, blogging, and getting office work done.

    The secret to the Power of 48 minutes is to block all distractions and work on one thing. No web browsing, e-mail searching etc. I can honestly say that I would not have been able to write a book, keep a blog going for 5 years, and lose weight without it. The only tool you need is some type of timer. An egg timer works great for many applications and you probably already own one. If you are going to be using a computer, there are free software countdown timers that you can download. I have a post about this on my blog at http://bit.ly/coOVQX

    • Michael Hyatt

      This surge/recovery model is dead-on. Tony Schwartz provides the science behind it in his fantastic book, The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working. I highly recommend it.

      • http://intensedebate.com/people/success2you John Richardson

        I've heard about this book. I'll have to pick up a copy. I've never heard the term surge/recovery, but that is certainly what the 48 minute model works out to be.

        • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

          John, you will love this book. I am eating up every page!

    • http://www.therextras.com BarbaraBoucher PTPhD

      I'm going to try your formula, John. Thanks!

      • http://intensedebate.com/people/success2you John Richardson

        I've used it for over four years now and it really helps you get big projects done.

    • Jeannie

      Love this suggestion. I am going to try the 48 minute formula. Thanks! And thanks to Mr. Hyatt for starting the conversation – very "timely"!

      • http://intensedebate.com/people/success2you John Richardson

        It actually divides an hour into an 80/20 percent configuration. Let me know how it works out for you.

        • http://intensedebate.com/profiles/mitchebie Mitch Ebie

          This sounds good….I am going to look into it. Thanks, John.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/BLichtenwalner Ben Lichtenwalner

    Scheduling time to get work done is important for everyone – but especially those in leadership positions. If we do not make time to get our work done, we become "too busy to lead". If our calendars are full and we work into the evenings, we do not have time for the impromptu questions from the team.

    Some additional tips that helped me (I think I even got some of these from you, Michael):
    1. Make sure your assistant knows how important this time is and when it can not be moved
    2. Use an acronym, (Mine is TFBTGWD – Time For Ben To Get Work Done), so anyone w/ access to your calendar does not assume you are available
    3. Schedule this time when you are most creative (for me it's the mornings), whenever possible
    4. Try to maintain the same times each week, so your team can plan around it

    This is more great information, Michael. Thank you for sharing.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      These are really excellent suggestions, Ben. Where were you last night when I was writing this?!

  • http://intensedebate.com/profiles/brentfielder brentfielder

    I have done this – I just do not keep my word…to myself! I schedule a "weekly review" every week, but 75% of the time, something else seems more pressing…It has been a goal that I need to actually do and hold myself accountable too.

    Thanks Michael for your insight… Always!

  • http://anam-cara.typepad.com Shelia

    As a mom, I have found this to be an essential practice. One thing I have discovered for myself is that I am more successful if I remove myself from the home. Perhaps this is because I am a coward and am too willing to cave if my children interrupt me. :) But, it also keeps me from being distracted by unwashed laundry or flowers I forgot to water. A remove to the library or my favorite pub insulates me simewhat from the "Resistance" (to use Steven Pressfield's word) that threatens to undo me.

  • http://blog.simonhay.com.au/ Simon Hay

    I apply most of your advice to my life and writing. I shedule time for me. My career is social and emotion draining, so I have to create space for me to be productive in other areas. Thank you.

  • http://intensedebate.com/profiles/tomraines tomraines

    Thanks, this is sooo timely. I have had three conversations of how I do NOT do this and stay completely in the Tyranny of the Urgent. I even pulled the booklet out to someone to make my point… and did NOT read it. I have just pulled it out and will read . TFTTGWD. I am going offline!

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      It’s a great book. Timeless!

  • http://www.therextras.com BarbaraBoucher PTPhD

    Excellent advice and well said.

  • http://intensedebate.com/profiles/kaikunane ThatGuyKC

    Thanks for the great advice! It's astonishing how easy it is to allow others to drive the management of my time.

  • http://www.dailyreflectionsforsingleparents.blogspot.com/ Scoti Domeij

    Having grown up in a minister's home, it took me years before I blocked nonnegotiable time for work. Ministry is meeting the needs of people, right? I felt guilty not responding to their urgency. Now I block out time on my calendar. When people want to make an appointment, I say, "Oh that won't work for me, I have an appointment." I neglect to mention it's with myself. I cared for a precious, severely disabled man for four years in my home. He LOVED "The Price Is Right." And invariably PT and his caseworkers insisted on making appointments with him at 10 AM. So I finally, started telling them, "Oh he has an appointment from 10-11 AM." I'm sure they wouldn't have appreciated it if they knew the "appointment" was Bob Barker.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I think people in ministry particularly struggle with this. It’s probably true for any one in the “helping people” business.

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  • http://intensedebate.com/profiles/donibbitson Don Ibbitson

    Like I'm sure many others in ministry, I have a book, or more, in my head but finding time to start getting it out of there and down on paper has been elusive. As you say, even urgent things can gobble up the time and I can do newsletters and blog posts kind of on the fly but have been unsuccessful with the book. Within the past two weeks, I have scheduled time on my calendar (4 or more hours at a stretch) to do nothing but work on the book. I've found that I need a deeper level of engagement than I can get in snatches of time and I've found that this type of window allows me to get more done. I'm believing that I will be able to be diligent enough to keep doing this.

  • http://intensedebate.com/profiles/mitchebie Mitch Ebie

    Great points! Since I am someone that currently works for myself, I have to be very intentional about scheduling time for work and for myself, otherwise I will not be productive. As you noted above, emails and social media can eat up lots of time. One trick that I have learned is to have an auto-reply on all emails that includes a FAQ list….this can cut down on some emails. Working from home can also cut down on wasted time, as driving in traffic is not productive. Also, I have learned over the years that work meetings can be a huge waste of time. So, either opt out of them if possible or make sure they are on task.

  • Chris Spradlin

    Great reminder Michael! Over the years I have learned that I need to schedule a couple of different blocks of time…

    1st: Schedule intentional time to work "on" the business.
    2nd: Schedule intentional time to work "in" the business.

    I'm a bit out of control right now, thanks for the reminder!

  • http://twitter.com/pawelbrodzinski @pawelbrodzinski

    Actually I've the trick and it didn't work very well in my case. I think it depends a bit on company culture. Personally I prefer not to have scheduled meetings but to do a lot of informal discussions. And it of course works the other way around too. If I keep coming to different people in the team to discuss some they keep coming to me to talk about their issues.

    And even if my answer is "we'll talk in a half of hour" it is a distraction. Now, if I don't want to sacrifice this communication attitude, and I don't, I have to learn to work with disruptions.

    On the other hand I learned that I don't really need to schedule time for important office work. When there is something important to do I'm usually able to get into the flow and most of the time I don't even need a sense of urgency to do this.

    There's one more thing – no-meeting culture (http://blog.brodzinski.com/2009/11/how-to-reduce-number-of-meetings-to-one.html) helps much since I don't have calendar filled with a number of meetings and can plan my office hours in a pretty elastic way.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mickeyhodges Mickey Hodges

    That's pretty much how I survived the last two years of college. I scheduled how much time it would take to study, blocked it out, and when the time was up, I closed my books and moved on. Really helps one focus.

  • http://forrest-long.blogspot.com Forrest Long

    That's an excellent post and a good reminder of something so very important. Over the years in ministry I have learned the lesson of this reality, although I haven't always followed it. Years ago I read the statement which became a mantra for me and has helped me sort out demands- "The need is not the call."

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  • http://intensedebate.com/profiles/genwhirl genwhirl

    This is great! I've been reading "Time Power" by Charles Hobbs, which inspired a very similar principle as "scheduling time to work." It's already made an impact on my work week, and I'm looking forward to implementing your practical calendar meeting. Thanks!

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  • http://twitter.com/2020VisionBook Joshua Hood

    Isn’t it tragic how in our stress and desperation, we often overlook the simplest of solutions and action-steps? Making an “Appointment with Myself”. May look odd on the calendar, but it sure is effective.

    Joshua Hood

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  • Hunt Consulting DFW

    The tyranny of the urgent lead me to adopt a spread sheet that helps me balance my work and life, in order to reach my goals. It has lead me to a level of discipline I never had before and will be useful to your readers. http://wp.me/p2ugKa-4k

    Robert Hunt

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Thanks, Robert. I like it!

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