When I started as a pastor back in 1993 it didn’t take me long to realize that while seminary prepares you for some things it does not prepare you for everything. Seminary doesn’t prepare you to be a leader of a congregation or the manager of a business. I quickly realized that there were so many things that needed to be done administratively, pastorally, financially and physically. It was somewhat overwhelming and I was pretty burned out after the first year. In one of the many meetings I attended I heard about a book which is now a classic in personal management – The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen Covey. While it is close to 30 years old, the habits it outlines are just as relevant today and one of the most important things I learned from that book had to do with what is called the Tyranny of the Urgent.
It was Charles Hummel who first used the term Tyranny of the Urgent in a pamphlet published in 1967. He said… The important task rarely must be done today, or even this week… But the urgent task calls for instant action… The momentary appeal of these tasks seems irresistible and important, and they devour our energy. But in the light of time’s perspective, their deceptive prominence fades; with a sense of loss we recall the vital tasks we pushed aside. We realize we’ve become slaves to the tyranny of the urgent.
I have provided this quote on the next steps because I want us to read it often and reflect on its truth. We often live our lives only focused on what we see as urgent and while some of these things might be important, many things are not which means we can end up living our lives in a state of constant motion and busyness and feel like we are making a difference and living with purpose and yet when we come to the end of the day or week or even our life we realize we never focused on what was important. Charles Hummel wrote this 50 years ago and think how much has changed during that time. Hundreds more TV stations and the internet and social media all coming at us telling us what is important and demanding our time and attention. We are constantly faced with things that call for action and consume our energy – but are they really important?
Today let’s consider how we choose the Important Over Urgent.
Going back to Stephen Covey, he addressed the idea of the tyranny of the urgent by creating a matrix to help us understand our choices
Back in the 1990’s when I first read Covey’s book, I plotted where I was living my life and I realized I was living in only three quadrants: 1, 3, and 4. I was consumed by all the urgent things pressing on my time, some of these things were important but many were not and then I would get so tired that I would turn to escape activities and time wasters to try and recover. What was completely missing from my life was time spent in quadrant 2 and yet that is where some of the most important things are. I was getting caught up in the tyranny of the urgent. I bought into the idea that anything and everything that came to me in the course of a day or week was important and needed my immediate attention and demanded my energy and yet much of it was not important at all.
A great example for me came in the daily mail. Churches get a lot of mail, and a lot of it is promotional material. I would look through all of it and there were often really good ideas for mission, ministry and administration but honestly it was really just junk mail. I would open all of it and look at it and consider it and at times keep it on my desk when something looked good. I would then re-read this mail again and again giving it consideration and thought and yet most of it never amounted to anything and after months, I would throw it away. Looking at Covey’s matrix I was spending a lot of my time on what seemed urgent and important but was actually unimportant, so I began to make different choices. I choose to throw most if not all of the junk mail away unopened and I didn’t keep something on my desk that I wasn’t going to act on. I slowly started to choose what was important over what was urgent.
While this matrix is a good tool to evaluate our lives and actions, it also reflects a story we find in the life of Jesus. One of the things I have found most interesting about much of the business and personal leadership ideas and principles that I have read during the years is that the ones that stand the test of time come from principles in the Bible. What makes them sound and effective is that they don’t come from the wisdom of the world but the wisdom of God. Learning to overcome the tyranny of the urgent or learning to choose what is important over what is urgent is what we find in Luke 10:38-42.
Both Martha and Mary loved Jesus. They both wanted to honor Jesus and show their devotion to him, but Martha was focused on what needed to be done for Jesus visit while Mary focused on Jesus. Martha was kind and gracious and wanted to be a good hostess for Jesus and the people which were good things. She wanted everything to be perfect for the visit and the meal which again were good things but all the details distracted her from Jesus.
Mary, on the other hand, chose what was important. Mary knew that Jesus wasn’t around often and so she wanted to spend every moment she could in his presence. She wanted to listen to Jesus and learn from him and love him. Mary chose what was important – Martha chose what was urgent. While both actions are good, what does Jesus say? Mary has chosen what is better.
If we want to choose what is better, then we need to choose what is important and not just what is urgent. To choose what is important we first need to identify what is important. What are the most important things in our lives?
I hope that most of us would say that the most important things for us are our faith, family, marriage, health, serving others, education and learning. There might be other things you would add to this list, things that you have identified as part of your purpose in life. What is most important in your life? Make a list, write them down and prioritize the list so that even among all that is important you can clearly say, these are things that are most important. Once we have this list we need to go back to Covey’s matrix and take a good look at where we spend our time, energy and resources. If everything in our lives seems to be going to something that is not on this list, we are choosing what is urgent over what is important and it might time for us to make some new choices.
Once we have identified what is important in our lives and made those things a priority we then have start making smart choices. This means we have to do first what matters most. We all have time for what we choose to have time for. If we say we have no time to read the bible but then spend our time watching TV, the truth is that we do have time to read the Bible, we have just chosen not to do it. If we say we don’t have time to spend with our family but we have time for outside activities and hobbies then we have just not made family a priority. We all have time for what we choose to have time for so we need to do first what matters most.
If we struggle to truly understand what matters most in life because so many good things are competing for our time and attention, then let me suggest we put God first and allow God to help us prioritize our lives. This really isn’t my suggestion; it is the example of Jesus. Even Jesus had to choose what was important over what was urgent and it wasn’t always easy because the urgent things for Jesus were things like healing people and caring for their real needs. But Jesus had to decide if he was going to give his life to what was urgent or what was important.
This choice in Jesus life was a profound and important moment that comes at the beginning of his ministry. Once Jesus started healing people, word spread quickly and people from all over the region came to him for help. Mark 1:32-34. Obviously this was urgent and important work for Jesus and he gives himself to it during his life, but he had to decide if this was going to be the focus of his life. It was good, but was it the best, was it the priority and the purpose of his life? In a moment of decision, Jesus goes off to get guidance from God. Mark 1:35-38.
After a time of prayer, Jesus changed his focus and priorities and chose what was important over what was urgent. Jesus did not allow the crowds to tell him what was important, he did first what matters most which was preaching the good news of God. Jesus choose what was important over what was urgent and he turned to God to get that direction. If we are wrestling with what is ultimately most important in our lives then we need to turn to God and get direction. Jesus said that instead of worrying about all the things in life that are urgent like food and clothes and jobs, that we should seek first the kingdom, or seek God first and allow God to give us what we need and help us focus on how and where to spend our time and energy and resources. Jesus isn’t just teaching here, he is sharing his own experience. This is what he did. This is how Jesus live and these were the choice he made.
When we choose what is important we will also have to learn when to say no to what is urgent and at times what might even seem important. When Jesus said that he was going to go to other villages to teach and preach he was saying no to being primarily a healer and miracle worker. He still healed people and performed miracles, but that was not going to be the focus of his life. There are times we have to say no to things that are good but we do that so we can experience and give ourselves to the things that are better. Oswald Chambers said, good is always the enemy of the best. When we end up choosing what is urgent and good, we often never get to what is important and best so we have to learn when to say yes and when to say no.
To choose the important over urgent we need to
• know what is important,
• do first what matters most
• learn when to say no.
When we do these things we focused on what is important and experience those things God wants for us in life.
So we have looked at 4 important choices that we need to make:
Purpose Over Popularity
Surrender Over Control
Discipline Over Regret
Important Over Urgent
Learning to make these choices daily and considering them at crucial moments in life is making a choice to live like Jesus. This is how Jesus lived and if this is how we live then we will truly be his followers and like Jesus we will experience the fullness of life and faith and life eternal.
I CHOOSE – Important Over Urgent
The important task rarely must be done today, or even this week… But the urgent task calls for instant action… The momentary appeal of these tasks seems irresistible and important, and they devour our energy. But in the light of time’s perspective, their deceptive prominence fades; with a sense of loss we recall the vital tasks we pushed aside. We realize we’ve become slaves to the tyranny of the urgent. (Charles Hummel – Tyranny of the Urgent, 1967)
1. Using this matrix, where do you spend most of your time?
2. Identify what is important in your life. Write it down and prioritize what is most important. (List the top three.)
3. What activity might you need to say NO to so that you can chose what is most important?
Prayer for the week: Jesus, you lived a short life here on earth yet accomplished the most important work of all. Thank you. Give us the strength to seek your kingdom first, think long-term and put people first. Help us refocus on what matters most and to do those things first. AMEN
For Further thought and reflection:
• 1 Corinthians 6:12
• Proverbs 4:25-27
• Luke 21:34
• 1 Timothy 5:8
• Romans 12:12
• Matthew 7:13-14