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When Everything’s Urgent, Nothing Is

by | Oct 2, 2009 | Industry News & Trends

j0178099I helped my mom move a few years ago. She hired movers for the lifting while she and I unpacked boxes. We worked efficiently side-by-side as the movers buzzed by us. She choreographed their comings and goings between rooms like a fine ballet, providing quick, decisive and intelligible instructions. The afternoon flowed seamlessly until the bottom of a box gave way not two inches from where she was bent over unpacking a load. The broken box was inscribed with FRAGILE. The mover muttered an apology as he stooped down to pick up the contents, which turned out to be three birch logs.

“You know m’am we’ve been real careful all day because most of your boxes are marked fragile and we didn’t want to break anything,” he said as he tucked the wood under his arm, “but now I’m thinkin’ maybe not everything is.”

When everything is marked fragile, or urgent, then nothing is. We spend a vast majority of our lives now attached to electronic umbilical cords — cell phones that grant us access to IMs, the weather, tweets, GPS capabilities and much more. So many things are placed at our finger tips that when this technology is suddenly unavailable we are as helpless as when electricity goes out. We apologize if we can’t be reached as if time away from work or virtual friends is an unforgiveable crime.

Due to this instant availability we have a tendency to view the work day as a round-the-clock undertaking. If we send an email at 5:30 we’re surprised when it’s not returned until 8:30 the next morning. Why didn’t he check his Blackberry last night? We expect immediacy in all of our dealings and we attach urgent exclamation marks on our emails. But again, when everything is urgent, nothing is urgent. Some businesses have gotten to the point where they need to start inventing new words for urgent, as in barely urgent (there’s a fire that needs to be put out, bring your bucket); mostly urgent (fire’s still going strong, looks like we’ll need a hose) to so explosively urgent that it’s no longer an issue (forget it, the building’s burned to the pavement but the fire’s still raging).

Whether you’re receiving the urgent requests or making them, recipients tend to turn a deaf ear to requests when everything is urgent; particularly if urgent is assigned to everything by the same person, as my mother did when she marked every box fragile. In her mind, marking it fragile was a way to get special care for her things. Maybe that’s why you (or someone else you deal with) always requests things to be done urgently. Maybe it’s seen as a way for those projects to be handled with care and alacrity. But by making those requests, you are actually causing the opposite to happen. So take a moment to prioritize for yourself or for your recipient. Assign urgency only to those things that need it most.

Managing expectations and communicating to all involved are the best ways to help alleviate some of the urgency you’re bombarded with everyday. Having efficient tools to do your job and manage your data is essential to quelling fires. As our lust for technology increases and the lines between personal and professional fade, we’re going to be called upon to create our own boundaries and handle our own urgencies in a way that generations before us never had to. So take some time and review your work processes. Are you doing everything as efficiently as possible? Are you providing tools to help your constituents make the connections that will sustain them personally and professionally?

I’d love to hear how you differentiate between levels of urgency.


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