Escape from the Tyranny of the Urgent

By crispinheneise / On / In Engineering Daybook

For me, a major source of professional anxiety comes from two places: unfinished tasks simmering in the back of my mind, and urgent tasks that present themselves through client meetings, phone calls, calendar appointments, and notifications that are always popping up in the background.

Right now, as I type this at this very moment, I can see my email client peeking out from behind this writing window. There’s nothing actively flashing at me, but in the periphery I can see a litany of important people that need something from me.

Ironically, the most important things tend to get pushed aside by the urgent things. Building relationships, developing content, doing sales outreach, reading educational material—all tasks that are important in the long term but don’t feel urgent—are easy to neglect when notifications are bouncing all over the place.

Tim Ferriss had a talk a while ago about Caging the Monkey Mind, and I never forgot that idea. I definitely identify with the idea of the mind as a monkey, jumping from idea to idea without ever completing a task.

My theory is that we succumb to the tyranny of the urgent because it’s our default setting. We get a little dopamine rush by being needed. Something needs to be done urgently, and I’m the one to do it. That gives a little twinge of satisfaction, but it also builds up anxiety because every time we jump from one thing to another we leave something else simmering in the back of our minds. Those simmering items eventually build up and cause anxiety.

Some of the things that help me to work with focused intensity and escape the tyranny of the urgent:

  • Pomodoro Timer: I use a little timer to set limits for a certain activity. It helps me to feel confident that I can devote the next 20 minutes to the current activity without fear that the world will end in my absence.
  • Journaling: Even though I keep a running to-do list, I find that writing down my tasks at the beginning of the day helps me to think through the most important things that are at the top of my mind.
  • Turning off notifications: Whenever I need to block out time for focused work, I like to turn on “do not disturb” mode on my iMac and my phone. I’ll check in with email when I’m finished, but for now, my time is my own.

These are some tricks that have helped me to focus on what’s most important each day. What about you?

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