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In busy working lives it is very easy for individuals to get bogged down with the flood of urgent requests that we experience every day. At work, we have the continuous stream of electronic and face-to-face demands for this, that and the other from our managers, team leaders, colleagues and clients whereas at home we have the never-ending administrative tasks and social interruptions of just living a 21st century life, bursting with multi-media and mobile communications. This tends to make us respond and react to what’s urgent and to stop thinking about what is really important and not urgent. What is not urgent but important to you? What is not urgent but is important to your loved-ones? What is not urgent but is important to your professional community? What is not urgent but is important to our society? What is not urgent but is important to others, other families, other communities and other societies?
Continuously responding to the urgent creates a stream of relentless activity which gives one the impression of a lack of time to consider and prioritise or to refresh skills and sharpen tools. This can lead to the fatigue of both the workforce and their tools!
The work of Stephen R. Covey, and in particular, his book ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’ (Simon and Schuster, London, UK 2003) has influenced my attitude to working on different projects and balancing short-term contracts. He suggests an approach to make one aware of prioritising the unassuming ‘Important and Not Urgent’ tasks and resisting the ‘Urgent/Not Important’ tasks that are constantly snapping at our heels. He also advises to ‘stop and sharpen the saw’.
It seemed to me that Covey was suggesting that we consciously accept that there will always be some collateral damage or wastage because of the systems in use, human and machine errors and functional boundaries coupled with the sheer amount of offers, requests, demands and choices we are required to accept, respond to, meet and make every day. If we accept that this is the case, then we need to consciously choose exactly what we want the collateral damage or wastage to be as otherwise we will risk damage to or waste what is really precious and important rather than what is urgent but is not important or at least not as important. This reminds me of stories told by mother, working on the conveyor belt in a South London biscuit factory.
We had a brown paper bag of mixed broken biscuits every Friday afternoon. A delightful mix of smashed garibaldis, half-naked bourbons and crumbly custard creams that melted in your mouth. These broken biscuits were the collateral damage of the biscuit operations so that the ‘girls’, who were actually women aged 20-60, didn’t burn their hands on the first few scorching hot biscuits or so that production speeds could be adjusted to the optimum pace of highly competent workers. Don’t let our important priorities become broken biscuits just because they are not urgent.