How to Avoid the 'Tyranny of the Urgent' and Focus on What Really Matters | Toggl Blog
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How to Avoid the ‘Tyranny of the Urgent’ and Focus on What Really Matters

Jacob Thomas Jacob Thomas Last Updated:

In this blog post we’ll explain what the “tyranny of the urgent” is, and nine tips you can use to beat itand become more productive.

The Meaning of ‘Tyranny of the Urgent”

The term “tyranny of the urgent” was first used by Charles E. Hummel in his booklet of the same name, released in the 1960’s. Within its pages, the author recognizes that there is often tension between urgent and important tasks and, in many cases, the majority of people allow the important things in life take a backseat to the urgent ones.

For the sake of clarity, in this article, urgent tasks will be classified as tasks that demand immediate attention. Activities such as answering the phone and meeting deadlines. Important tasks, on the other hand, are pursuits that propel your career forward and help you achieve your major life goals.

There is nothing inherently wrong with urgent tasks. Life is full of unexpected happenstances that we need to navigate through. Urgent tasks become a problem, though, when they prohibit people from working on and completing more important activities.

When this happens, urgent tasks become “tyrants” in our work day and keep us from being the productive, goal achieving people we all want to be — thus the term, “tyranny of the urgent.”

9 Tips to Avoid the “Tyranny of the Urgent’

In order to become more productive and achieve your goals, you must banish the tyranny of the urgent and allow yourself ample time to focus on more important activities. The nine tips listed below will help.

1. Know What You Want to Achieve

It’s hard, impossible even, to classify a task as important without first knowing what your overarching goals are. What are you trying to accomplish? Great achievements all find their foundation in well-laid plans.

The best way to set goals is to follow the S.M.A.R.T. framework, which is an acronym that stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. Let’s discuss each of these in greater detail:

  • Specific: The more specific your goals, the better. For example, saying, “I want to acquire 100 new, paying customers in the next 30 days,” is much better than saying, “I want to acquire a lot more customers.” When your goals are specific, you have a much higher likelihood of achieving them.
  • Measurable: A measurable goal is one that allows progress to be easily assessed. In our previous example, “a lot more customers” isn’t measurable. Who’s to say whether “a lot” means 10, 100, or 1,000? But a goal of “100 new, paying customers in 30 days” is very easy to track.
  • Attainable: Your goal must be realistic. Is it really possible for you to obtain 100 new customers in the next 30 days? If not, you need to re-evaluate your objectives. We applaud ambition, but unrealistic expectations won’t help you.
  • Relevant: Relevant goals are ones that you, personally, care enough about to make the sacrifices necessary to achieve them. For instance, you may say that you want to become the CEO of a multinational corporation. But are you willing to work 80 hour weeks, miss you kid’s baseball games, and spend holidays in the office? Make sure your goals fit your personality and the lifestyle you aspire to.
  • Time-Bound: Finally, all goals need a deadline. When do you hope to achieve X by? Returning to our first example one more time, the goal is to acquire “100 new, paying customers in 30 days.” There is a clear deadline baked into this goal.

2. Create a To-Do List

Once you know what your goals are and what you’re trying to achieve on a grand scale, you can plan out your daily to-do list items.

First, take your goals and break them down into more manageable chunks. Marketing the release of your company’s new product can be broken down into social media, email, blogging, CPC ads, and PR. Each of these categories can then be broken down further into individual tasks such as scheduling social posts, crafting an email campaign, and writing a blog announcement.

Make sure these important tasks make it onto your to-do list alongside the other, less important tasks, you need to complete each day. Also, we recommend trying to keep your to-do lists short. Don’t attempt to start and finish 10+ tasks during office hours. Instead, choose three or four things to focus on at a time.

3. Learn to Properly Prioritize Tasks

Speaking of things to focus on, how do you know what tasks are actually important and which are better delegated or eliminated altogether. It’s not always easy to tell.

Fortunately, there are systems that works extremely well for prioritizing the items on your to-do list and lessening the tyranny of the urgent. One example is the Eisenhower Matrix, named after the 34th U.S. President, Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Basically, every task can be segmented into one of four groups:

  1. Important and Urgent: These are tasks that require immediate attention and also help you achieve your goals. There are often steep consequences for not completing these tasks successfully and on time.
  2. Important but Not Urgent: Important but not urgent tasks are those that will help you achieve your career and life goals but don’t have a looming deadline. Writing a book is a good example. It may greatly increase your chance of building authority in your niche, but unless you have a publishing deal, there probably isn’t a real deadline to complete your manuscript.
  3. Urgent but Not Important: These are tasks that require your immediate attention, but don’t move you any closer to your goals. Answering the phone and responding to urgent emails both qualify. Unfortunately, most of us spend way too much time on these activities.
  4. Neither Urgent or Important: These tasks do nothing to get you closer to your goals or demand immediate attention. Mindlessly surfing the internet and watching TV are great examples of neither urgent or important activities.

Once you’ve separated each task on your to-do list into one of these four categories, it becomes easy to prioritize them.

Important and urgent activities should be completed right away. Important but not urgent tasks should be scheduled to do later. Urgent but not important items should be delegated if at all possible. And neither urgent or important tasks should be eliminated in most scenarios.

By prioritizing tasks this way, you’ll ensure that you’re making daily progress towards your goals and minimizing the tyranny of the urgent.

4. Schedule “Work” Time

Prioritizing important tasks is all well and good, but what if urgent things keep popping up and stealing your attention? It happens to everyone. That’s why it’s so important to schedule in “work” time. This is special, set aside time, for you to focus on important tasks.

Investor extraordinaire, Warren Buffett, said, “You can’t let other people set your agenda in life.

We couldn’t agree more! One of the best ways to ensure you’re in command of your day is to set aside specific time where you can work on important projects uninterrupted.

Remember, time is your most valuable asset. It’s MUCH more valuable than money since, once it’s gone, you can’t ever get it back. So do yourself, and your goals, a favor and schedule in time to work on important tasks every day.

5. Remove Distractions

Directly related to our last tip, if you really want to overcome the tyranny of the urgent, you need to remove any and all distractions from your environment, while working on important, career propelling projects.

That means turning off your phone, logging out of your email and social media accounts, closing your office door — whatever you have to do to stay focused and minimize interruptions.

Did you know that it takes the human brain roughly 23 minutes to refocus once is become distracted? That’s a lot of time! Even one text an hour can completely destroy your productivity for a day.

As difficult as it may be at first, separating yourself from the rest of the world will do wonders for your productivity and you’ll achieve your goals much quicker. Isn’t that worth unplugging for a couple hours a day? We definitely think so.

6. Use the Right Tools

Keeping the tyranny of the urgent from greedily eating up all your time isn’t always easy, but there are plenty of tools out there to help you stay on track. Here are a few productivity apps you should consider investing in immediately.


Todoist is a to-do list app that’s helped over 10 million people take back control of their lives. The intuitive interface makes it easy to organize your daily task list, add new to-do items, and track progress towards your goals.

Todoist can even be used to manage teams with its project management and file sharing features. Whether you use this tool on your smartphone, tablet, or computer; the price for premium plans starts at just $3 a month, per user.


Trello is a simple project management app based on the Kanban methodology. Each project can be broken down into various “cards” or tasks and organized into different columns.

For example, a blogger might organize their Trello board using four columns: “Research”, “Writing”, “Editing”, and “Posted”. Then they could create specific cards for each blog idea they’re working on and move them from one column to the next as the posts progress from the research stage to going live on their company’s website.

It’s a great app that keeps teams on track and productive. Trello provides their service for free, though access to premium features costs $10 a month, per user.


Toggl is the simplest time-tracking app on the market. Just click the “start” button on your smartphone, tablet, or computer and the tool immediately begins cataloging your time. When you’re done for the day or decide to work on a new project, simply hit the button again.

After your hours have been logged, Toggl will crunch the numbers for you and display them in an easy-to-read report. This information can be used to accurately bill clients, assess profitability, discover areas to improve productivity, and more.

With this app in hand, reversing the tyranny of the urgent trend in your life is much, much easier. Get access to basic features for free, or subscribe to a premium plan for just $9 a month, per user.

7. Get Comfortable Saying “No”

Steve Jobs once said, “It’s only by saying “no” that you can concentrate on the things that are really important.”

To overcome the tyranny of the urgent, you have to get comfortable with the word. This is tough for many of us, for a couple of different reasons. First, we want to be liked. It’s easy to think that if we say no to someone, we’ll disappoint them and they’ll begin to think less of us.

Most of us also suffer from some level of FOMO (fear of missing out). We’re constant yes-sayers because we’re afraid that if we say no, we’ll miss out on something amazing.

Both of these reasons make it harder for you to accomplish your goals. Instead, you need to set boundaries and stick to them. If you’re asked to do something that doesn’t align with your personal and professional objectives, say no. If you decline politely, you likely won’t offend anyone.

And remember, achieving your goals, in the end, is much more exciting than anything else. So don’t have FOMO. Stay focused and achieve what you truly want out of life.

8. Realize that Life Goes On

As we’ve already established, one of the keys to better managing your time, becoming more productive, and overcoming the tyranny of the urgent, is to focus more on important tasks than urgent ones.

Very rarely will you suffer major consequences for neglecting to complete an urgent task. And if you do, or suspect that you will, that task should actually be classified as an important and urgent one, not just urgent, according to the Eisenhower Matrix we mentioned earlier.

So don’t worry about a missed phone call, or not responding to an email right away. Focus on what really matters. Time marches on and at the end of the day, you’ll feel much more accomplished knowing you’re closer to your goals — even if your inbox is still full.

9. Get Better Every Day

Finally, it’s important to strive, daily, to beat the tyranny of the urgent. It’s not always an easy thing to do. Most of us are more inclined to complete urgent tasks than important ones. It will take a mindset shift and a consistent effort to change. But it can be done!

Take an honest look at yourself. What are your tendencies and shortcomings in this area? What can you do to minimize or eliminate these shortcomings? Maybe using a task prioritization technique like the Eisenhower matrix is the answer. Perhaps investing in the right technology is what you need.

Experiment, work hard, and constantly remind yourself to focus on the important tasks that move you closer to your goals. Do that and you’ll become much more productive and accomplished!

Vanquish the Tyranny of the Urgent!

If you want to achieve your goals, you have to learn to prioritize important tasks over urgent ones. The nine tips listed in this blog post will help. We encourage you to try each and see what works for you. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different apps, techniques, and approaches.

The more often you apply these tips, the more productive you’ll become. So get started today and achieve your goals. Good luck!

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