We live in a culture of busyness.
Most of us carry around little electronic devices that beep, flash, buzz, and vibrate all day long prompting us to respond to the constant influx of our inbox. These messages are almost always labeled urgent. We spend our days busily putting out fires.
Let’s not forget there is a difference between what is urgent and what is important.
The urgent always calls for attention. It demands it. It cries loudly, always cuts in line, and insists on being first. But if we pay too much attention to the urgent voice, we never have time to address what is truly important.
Imagine that you are a teacher in a classroom full of children. One child is always raising her hand. She always has an opinion, a comment, or a question about everything. At the beginning of the school year, you appreciate her active engagement, but after awhile it becomes problematic.
There are other children in the class who need a chance to speak. They need your attention too. In fact, there is a very quiet boy in the corner who comes to school with sad eyes and is falling behind. He is never going to raise his hand, let alone wave it wildly to get your attention. He shrinks from your gaze, but needs you the most. The only way you will ever connect with him is to walk past the demanding girl and go to him. You have to approach him with enough time to gently coax him out of his shell.
But what about that girl? How will you get her to leave you alone so that you are free to focus your attention on the student who really needs you?
Teachers have to solve problems like this everyday, and all of us should too. If you were a teacher, you would foster independence in the little girl, teach her to work with self-reliance, hold her thoughts until discussion time, and let others speak. You would have to teach yourself to ignore her urgency sometimes.
I used the analogy of putting out fires earlier. It’s a common analogy, but also inaccurate. Fires are both urgent and important. Most of the things that demand our attention are neither urgent nor important. They can wait. If we take that pause, we are able to step back and evaluate what is truly important so we can direct our energy with mindfulness.
I am thinking of afternoons and evenings in most families, including mine. It’s common for a frenetic energy to permeate a household. Dinner needs to be cooked, homework completed, house tidied, and clothes laundered. Children always choose this time to start bickering, don’t they? It seems cruel the way that happens right when time is in short supply. When a million things have to be done, a child’s meltdown is outrageously inconvenient, especially because it is usually about something petty.
The description above reflects a life that prioritizes the urgent. The list of things that have to be done right now dominates the family. Of course soothing hurt feelings is more important than laundry, but the urgent need for clean uniforms and underpants bullies its way to the top of the To Do List. We all end up feeling a little battered at the end of one of those frazzled evenings.
But what if we prioritized the important above the urgent?
What if we could interact with our children without the distraction of a pressing To Do List?
Yes, it would be lovely. We all know how well children behave when given undivided attention, but managing that is tricky because that To Do List still exists. Dinner does need to be cooked. We can’t just eat garbage every night. Kids can’t opt out of homework. Parents can’t wait until children are tucked in bed to clean the house, do the laundry, and pick up groceries. Life flows, and wishing it was different won’t do a thing.
Of course, I am using examples parents face, but the problem of the urgent trampling over the important is widespread and affects everyone in our society. For nonparents, unfair work demands or taxing friendships can drain time and energy away from your priorities.
Our usual approach to solving problems like this is to create a better system of organization, but don’t those systems always exact too much effort, and fall apart anyway? No, that won’t do.
I don’t have a quick and easy promise to eliminate the mess of life. Aren’t we old enough to know that isn’t possible?
The best we can do is to cultivate an awareness of what is urgent and what is important.
Simply recognizing that urgent can’t always come first allows us to make more deliberate choices. When something important has been simmering on the back-burner for too long, we sense it. An undercurrent of anger, resentment, tension, or anxiety fills our environment. Maybe a mother is dying to get in some exercise, but can’t manage to escape her responsibilities. Maybe a child is acting up because she’s over-scheduled, or needs extra reassurance during a difficult phase. Those important concerns can’t be relegated to the sidelines forever.
When life feels like a constant uphill battle, that’s a sign that something important has been neglected. It is time to make the important urgent, and let the normal demands of life fall on deaf ears.
There’s a saying that time doesn’t stop for anything, but every parent knows that isn’t true.
The first thing we learn as parents is that time indeed does stop. When a woman goes into labor, work is left unfinished. Someone else has to pick up the slack. And do you know what? They always do. Life with a newborn is a constant lesson of leaving urgent tasks undone in order to tend to what is important. It’s crazy, but we all survive it.
What was possible then is possible now.
It’s time to tackle the important work of our lives.
If not now, when?