Ding! The Urgent vs. the Important In Our Lives

Creative Commons License photo credit: Film Colourist

While visiting friends a few weeks ago, I noticed a change that I wasn’t too thrilled about. Technology was beginning to take over their lives. Literally.

Over the last six months, technology had changed the way my friends socialized. Before, you could hold a lengthy and meaningful conversation with them without any distractions. Now, you can’t go 90 seconds without checking the latest text message on their phone. But the worst part is that you could be in mid-sentence and hear a little “ding!” and either friend would instantly whip out their phone and start texting a reply. Sometimes they’d try to fake acting interested in your conversation with a nod and a “uh huh”, proving yet again that multi-tasking never works.  Other times they’d politely interrupt and say, “Sorry, one minute. My friend texted me.” Even though there was an apology, what I heard was “One sec… you’re not as important as my other friend”. Does this sound familiar to anyone?

This is a perfect example of how we’ve started to let our lives be overrun by the urgent, not the important. Instead of talking to the person in front of them, they were willing to interrupt a conversation for a more urgent input: their cellphone.

The Urgent

It’s incredibly interesting what we’ll do when an urgent stimuli (the “ding!” of a text message, for example) rears it’s ugly head. Text messages are the worst offender. We’ll hear the text go off, and even while trying to concentrate, the only thing we can think about is the text message. Why? Because it’s an urgent prompt. It’s begging for your attention. Other forms of urgent inputs:

  • Cell phones/text messages
  • IM
  • Twitter (it’s true!)
  • Email (especially with pop-ups)

The Important

So what are the things that we should be worried about, the “important” things in our lives? Easy. The things that last and provide value.

  • Friends/Family– There’s nothing more important in life than friends and family. They are directly linked to our happiness and well-being.
  • Life Goals – Goals that we’ve set that want to be accomplished eventually.
  • Projects due/commitments – These aren’t necessarily related to work.
  • Health– Taking care of our bodies is incredibly important. Personal health is something that greatly adds to our level of happiness (believe it or not).

Unfortunately, focusing on the urgent ensures that we’ll never get to the important. In order to make sure we’re doing what’s important, we need to find a way to ignore the urgent and focus on the important with steely resolve.

I struggle with this daily. (As I write this I’ve had 2 text messages and the doorbell rang!) As a person who makes his bread working on a computer, I find that it’s quite easy to get distracted. The web is a beautiful and social place, but not one well-suited for productivity. Eliminating urgent inputs is something that is going to continue to grow in importance, especially with the widespread adoption of iphones and the like. Our world is continually becoming more connected. As a result, it’s going to be much harder to filter out the urgent stimuli.

How about you? Are there any methods that you use to really combat these urgent messages in our everyday lives?

Leave a Comment

{ 17 comments… add one }
  • Francis April 8, 2008, 11:40 am

    I enjoyed this post immensely, and it fits in with some of the habits I have had to create for myself.

    I remember a study that was shared with me in the 1990’s regarding software programmer productivity, in which they found that the number one variable that impacted productivity the most was “office space.”

    In other words, the larger the office, the more likely it was to have a door, and the more likely the programmer could create the peace and quiet needed to program.

    That has stayed with me ever since.

    I imagine a zone of quiet around me when I need to focus on a single task, and I allow little to interrupt it (when I’m being good!) including phones, emails, etc. When I re-open the zone to start taking inputs, I take them all at once, checking email, voicemail, F’book messages, etc one after the other.

    The book “Flow” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was also useful to me in learning why the peak experience is so important to doing deep work.

  • Katie Williams April 5, 2008, 2:47 pm

    It’s a mindset. You have to learn to be okay with not responding to the urgent at the very moment it arrives. If you allow yourself fall into the trap of always being accessible then you are training your colleagues, friends and family to expect an instant response all the time. It just snowballs from there. They will begin to text, call or IM not because they need to, but because they can. On the rare occasion when you don’t or can’t respond right away, they think you’ve been kidnapped, been in a car wreck or they get offended that you put them off.

    I leave my phone in the car when I’m watching my kids play sports. Two weeks ago my mom called 5 times because my grandmother was being rushed to the hospital. I felt awful for not “being there” to get the calls but the reality is, that even if I had answered, there was nothing that I could have done to make her better or get her to the hospital more quickly. She was already in good medical hands and being cared for.

    So if you happen to miss that one urgent call it might mean that someone had to move forward with decision on their own, your kids might not have any milk for cereal in the morning or the person on the other end of the line might have to call 911 to come rescue them, but things will get taken care of and life will go on.

  • Kevin Crenshaw April 4, 2008, 6:37 pm

    1. Make the Calendar your default view (instead of the email Inbox) if you can. In Outlook, go to Tools > Options > Other Tab > General > “Advanced Options” > Startup > Choose “Calendar”.

    2. Smarten your GTD system #1: “Triage” incoming emails. This separates the important from the seemingly urgent. At up to 2 min. each, full-blown “processing” leads to Doing a lot of little, urgent things. See this article:
    Three Kinds of Email

    3. Smarten your GTD system #2: Time boxing. Tag “Important” tasks in their categories, then look at only those categories at the right times. Some GTD software can do that automatically. Look for the “time categorization” feature in this list:
    Exhaustive Comparison of GTD Software

    P.S. Turning off email reminders was already suggested. Here are instructions for that in Outlook:
    Turning Off Email Reminders in Outlook

  • Ann April 4, 2008, 4:23 pm

    Strange coincidence; I just posted about the “big rocks” anecdote in Stephen Covey’s First Things First, which specifically speaks to the urgent v. the important. I’ve always thought it was a great analogy.

    My “urgent addiction” usually comes in the form of obsessively checking email (I’m trying to use The Now Habit to do better) but now a very close second is BLOGS – reading and posting – oh dear!

  • Michael Henreckson April 4, 2008, 3:42 pm

    Try setting the text notification to silent. Then just check your phone when you’re bored.

  • glen April 4, 2008, 9:45 am

    @Mark: Agreed! :)

  • Mark Griep April 4, 2008, 7:43 am


    Ding. I’m about to consume another yummy text message.

    What a distressing state. I can’t wait for a renaissance.

  • glen April 3, 2008, 11:21 pm

    Great tips guys. Keep ’em coming!

    @casper: I agree, text messages are much friendlier than phone calls. However, they’re still invasive. They ring or buzz and demand attention (or try to demand it, anyway).

  • Shannon C April 3, 2008, 6:28 pm

    I don’t seem to be able to edit my last comment, but just wanted to clarify #2 that people know that this is my policy, and they know that they can email me if it’s really urgent.

  • Shannon C April 3, 2008, 6:25 pm

    I too struggle with the urgent versus the important.

    I usually set my cell phone on silent, with only my childcare provider’s phone number set with an override ring, so that she can call me if there is an emergency. This sometimes results in annoyed employers, clients, and friends who don’t like that I take upwards of a day to respond to their voice messages and text messages. I keep my email open, but only respond to emails during the daytime if they are extremely urgent. This also has resulted in some less than satisfied friends, clients, and employers from time to time.

    For me, though, I remind myself constantly of 3 things: 1) I am less stressed out when I minimize the urgent, 2) those who know me know that this is my policy, and 3) people control their own emotions; if somebody wants to be irritated by my policy, that’s their choice.

  • Holly Hoffman April 3, 2008, 6:05 pm

    Definitely remove the dinging alert and pop-up window on your Outlook. This has revolutionized my life at the office!

  • Julia April 3, 2008, 5:58 pm

    I tend just to ignore “urgent” stimuli until I get around to it. I’ve discovered in life that nothing is nearly as urgent as people make it out to be. What is important is keeping in touch while still being mannerly.

  • Heather April 3, 2008, 5:29 pm

    These work for me:

    1. Turn off notifications of emails in Outlook – no noises or fading pop-ups, which used to always distract me. I have a few time slots a day I actively check what has arrived in my Inbox.

    2. Never answer the phone unless caller id tells me its someone I want to (and have time to) talk with. They either leave a message, or were just a telemarketer.

    3. NEVER have an IM client open.

    4. Avoid social networking websites.

    5. Silence (or ignore) cellphone while out with friends or business acquaintances.

    6. Don’t pick up the phone while having dinner at home.

    Some people will whine about being indispensable to their colleagues and unable to adhere to #1 & #2, but I say, fine, turn off the notifications/phone ringer and only check messages once an hour – at least then you have a hour of uninterrupted time. After all, I have real work to do, and often taking phone calls/emails right when they come in just screams to people – “Please, interrupt me, and expect an immediate reply, I have nothing more important to do that sit around answering your phone calls and emails instantly!” You can TRAIN your contacts about when they should expect replies.

  • casper April 3, 2008, 5:20 pm

    I would rather be interrupted by a text then a phone call. A text I can easily ignore until later, a call you kinda have to take because you dont know if it may be “urgent” or not. I always answer calls and read text messages, but, a in a phone call you ARE tied up in conversation, and a text message response can be easily postponed. I love text messages, short and to the point, none of the small talk courtesies you have to maintain over actual phone calls.

  • Jared Goralnick April 3, 2008, 1:16 pm

    Glen, I really like the distinction you’ve drawn here. It gives me words for something that I’ve been considering for a long time.

    My solution is turning off every sort of automatic checking. I wrote a post last week about turning off cell-phone auto-checking, and I think there’s nothing worse for our sanity than getting notified of every stupid incoming email.

    Thanks for giving me the words for this–I may very well reference this both on Technotheory and with AwayFind. Keep up the great tips!

  • Stuart April 3, 2008, 1:03 pm

    I’ve defined urgency as the people that I am with at the moment. I only give out my GrandCentral number. I let people know that my preferred method of communication is through email. The only people that have my direct line are people that need to contact me in case of an emergency.

    I’m swamped with work, so I have no need to be available at all times.