Mark Twain once quipped, “Everything has it’s limits – iron ore cannot be educated into gold.” My take on that, as was Twain’s superb sense of comedic timing, I believe, is that ‘we are what we are’ – which is, creatures of habit. It is a hard thing to change that. And now that we live in such a financially chaotic business world, we are pulled in many ways by many forces to do what they want us to do. Little alone what we still must do, for it is our job, our responsibility, our business. Yet our ingrained habits keep a short leash on us and we tend to do everything we can, in spite of the impossibility of it all. As Thomas Fuller famously said many years ago, “He that is everywhere is nowhere.”
This short article is about the limited resource of time. What rings true every day on the job, as we attempt to grow our business, keep on top of schedules, think and plan for the future subsistence of the organization, as well as the myriad of things that come our way everyday, is this – ‘if you don’t have a plan for your time, someone else does.’
There was an author, Charles Hummel, who wrote an essay in 1967 titled, “Tyranny of the Urgent.” According to Hummel, the issue is not so much of a shortage of time as it is a problem of priorities. He was once told by a cotton mill manager that “your greatest danger is letting the urgent things crowd out the important.” Ouch – personally, I just felt that arrow of truth hit me in the chest!
Now, as a guilty as charged party, allow me to defend our case against the ‘time-use accuser.’ Very often, the urgent things are temporarily important too and our attention to them is justified, to a certain degree. We aren’t 100% wrong here! However, there are also things in business, that if we don’t pay attention to them now (or soon), they will be the upcoming urgent things and by then it is too late to do much about it. For instance, each customer crisis can cause us to gloss over our need to invest in new equipment, or make a product change, or enhance our marketing efforts. As Simon Phipps says in a blog posted on March of this year (2011) … “In every case, repeatedly leaving these important things “until later” because there’s something urgent to deal with is eventually fatal, and when we realize those slow-burn important things have become urgent, it’s too late. Our product is trumped by a competitor, and the new customers we should have cultivated go buy it”. Another ‘ouch.’
Just knowing about our common constraint of time is good, but it is not enough. And yes, if the truth be told, again, we will never get everything done that should be done, even with a truckload of good intentions and all the electronic goodies you can carry or utilize. In an article about this tyranny of the urgent, Jim Clemmer says this – “Unsuccessful organizations are often beehives of activity and hard work. Reflecting on the performance of his struggling company a departmental manager observed, “We have lots of projects, goals, and priorities. We’re constantly making lists and setting action plans. But we seldom see anything through to completion before some urgent new priority is pushed at us. Our division manager’s thinking seems to be ‘random brain impulse.’ He’s like a nervous water bug that flits from one half-baked strategy to another.” Been there – done that!
What I have learned from over 30 years in business is this; busywork activity should not be confused with results. They are not the same thing. By ignoring or missing what’s really important does open the door for you to be tyrannized by short-term urgency’s. Again, Jim Clemmer says it well – “So we’ve got to choose. From all our long-range options, alternatives, and possibilities we’ve got to establish short-term goals and priorities. There are as many things we’ve got to stop doing, as there are actions we’ve got to start taking. Some actions will drive us forward, many will hold us back, and some won’t matter much either way. But without clear targets and a strong sense of what’s most important, I — and everyone on my team or in my organization — won’t be able to tell the difference”.
As we approach the Holiday season, here in late 2011, remember this; resolve that you won’t let the urgent things get an upper hand over the important things in your business. Take the necessary time to establish the short term, so you can build the long term off of them. Decide what is most important in the business and remove the things that distract you and others from it. It is about removing the urgent for the sake of the important. Your company is counting on you to do that!